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Dionysus Bacchae Essays

skepticism versus piety, reason versus irrationality, Greek versus foreign, male versus female/androgynous, civilization versus savagery

This play is extremely complex, and any attempt to boil it down to basic themes will oversimplify the depth and richness of the work. Many of the themes examined in this study guide will involve opposing forces: rationality versus irrationality, the Greek versus the foreign, skepticism versus piety, civilization versus savagery or nature, and so on. Critics have, in various interpretations, tried to make Pentheus and Dionysus into symbols for the two forces in any one of these binaries, with Pentheus representing the first half of each pair and Dionysus representing the second half. The reader must not mistake any one of these oppositions as being adequate in explaining the whole work. The Bacchae is about all of these forces, and more. Another danger of analyzing the play through the lens of these oppositions is that Euripides tends to show how these binaries are inadequate. Seemingly opposite forces tend to dissolve into each other, and powers we thought were neatly separated turn out to be part of the same order (or chaos).

Wisdom takes many different forms in the play, and in Euripides truth has many faces. There is the wisdom of the seer, of the old king, of the divinely possessed Maenads, of the devout Bacchae, and finally of the god himself. All of these characters command a different form of wisdom, each with its own set of limitations, and from these different perspectives we gain insights into the god's mysteries and the events of the play.

There is another sacred form of sophia in Euripides, and that is the wisdom that comes from suffering (Arrowsmith 152-3). Its distinguishing characteristics are acceptance and compassion, and this is the wisdom gained by Agave and Cadmus at the end of the play. It is a form of wisdom reserved for human beings: for the invulnerable gods, it is completely out of reach.

A difficult word to translate, it is roughly wisdom's opposite. It means recklessness, deep ignorance about oneself and the nature of the universe. It leads to excess, impatience. It is a trait possessed by many of the old and almost all of the young. Pentheus is the prime example of a man inflicted with this trait. He is impatient, bullying, and at times brutal. He irrationally rejects Dionysus and the new religion; his unthinking and uncompromising scorn for popular piety and the new teachings is neither rational nor open-minded. But he is also very young, and his youth in part excuses his crimes. Gods, too, exhibit amathia; Dionysus' excessive revenge is hardly the act of a wise man. Religion can become just as brutal and oppressive as a tyrant like Pentheus.

The unknown, the exotic, the foreign. In the case of this play, also the divine. Wherever the boundaries of the familiar end, the Other begins. Dionysus is a mystery, a complex and difficult figure whose nature is difficult to pin down and describe. His group of foreign followers creates an exotic and sinister atmosphere; his new rites, his origins, and his followers are all unfamiliar. He is the unknown and the unknowable, but he is also a part of truth. He invades the familiar world of civilization and order, and he represents everything that Pentheus would rather ignore or reject. Pentheus tries to oppose mysteries he cannot begin to comprehend, and he fails to see the connection between himself and the forces represented by Dionysus.

One of the binaries, deserving its own entry, but again the reader should not take this opposition as adequate for explaining the whole play. Pentheus seeks to preserve order and control; Dionysus comes with a new religion. He takes the women from Thebes and gives them powers beyond those of mortal men; his presence is a threat to the very foundations of ordered society. Pentheus seeks to preserve order, the male dominated order with which he is familiar. But there is a fine line between acting out of the common good and acting out of self-interest. As a free male, Pentheus is the prime beneficiary of Greek civilization. Dionysus, with his androgynous nature, female-dominated rites, and barbarian culture, represents everything that Hellenic civilization despises. His presence means chaos.

Closely connected to the theme listed above. Euripides had an enduring fascination with woman and their social position. In this play, his use of the Maenads shows canny perceptions about his society. Greek order, as Euripides often depicts it, is based on certain oppressive hierarchies: free above slave, rich above poor, Greek above barbarian, men above women. Greek civilization is linked, part and parcel, to the oppression of women. By giving the Maenads supernatural powers and taking them from their domestic chores and childrearing, Dionysus attacks the foundation of Greek civilization itself. Notice also that his rites are for all women, of all ages and ranks, and that he has brought with him a host of foreign followers; note also that the god, with his androgynous appearance, stands against Greek conceptions and social standards about gender. Pentheus cannot stand for this threat to order; he says repeatedly that men should not allow women to triumph over them.

The Bacchae is full of rich imagery of women rejoined with nature. Dionysus, though young, is a primal god; he represents forces that are ancient and undeniable. Cithaeron's wilderness, though never seen onstage, is the setting for many of the play's most important events: the triumph of the Maenad's over the villagers, the brutal murder of Pentheus. Wilderness is seen as essential to human nature and survival; it is also destructive and ominous. It is ambivalent, just as Dionysus is: capable of sustaining man, but also of destroying him.

Closely connected to the above theme. Dionysus is a hunter. Though humans tend to think of the hunt as an act in which a human hunter tracks and kills animals, Dionysus shows that the relationship between man and animal, hunter and hunted, is not always so stable. Pentheus, who originally intended to go with his troops and track down the Bacchae, becomes their prey. Man can be hunted by man (or in this case, woman), and also by primal animal god. No longer safe within the confines of Greek civilization, Pentheus is hunted and killed because of the god he denied.

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Essay Q&A

1. What arguments do Cadmus and Teiresias present for endorsing the cult of Dionysus?
Both Cadmus and Teiresias are old men who recognize power when they see it. Each produces his own reasoning why they and the other citizens of Thebes should honor the new Asiatic cult that has arrived in Greece.
Cadmus is the founder and former king of Thebes who only recently abdicated his throne in favor of Pentheus. He is a shrewd man who understandably wants to preserve what he has built. He has a politician’s attitude to the new cult. He says to his grandson that if he does not believe that Dionysus is a god he should just pretend to do so; “the fiction is a noble one” (line 335) and would bring distinction to their family, since Semele, Cadmus’s daughter, would then be seen as the mother of a god. For Cadmus, then, truth becomes a matter of what is most practical and useful to believe. He well knows what may happen if Pentheus persists in his opposition to the cult.
Teiresias was a very familiar character to an ancient Greek audience. He is the wise old seer, who also appears in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone, as well as Euripides’ Phoenician Women. His wisdom is signified by his blindness. He may be physically blind but his inner eye is open and he is able to perceive the truth.
In The Bacchae, Teiresias gives a much longer speech than Cadmus in support of his argument that they should accept and honor the new god. His is the voice of ancient Greek culture that did indeed find room for the god Dionysus in its pantheon and its festivals. Teiresias argues to Pentheus that Dionysus has bestowed on man one of its two best blessings, the invention of wine (the other blessing comes from Demeter, the earth, who produces grain for man’s nourishment). He says wine is the best way of warding off unhappiness. He tries to convince Pentheus of Dionysus’s divine origins; Dionysus really is the son of Zeus. Teiresias also argues that the followers of Dionysus become endowed with special powers; that the cult will soon become established throughout Greece whatever Pentheus does; and that the cult is not associated with immorality or sexual license. It is a woman’s character that dictates whether she will be chaste or not; merely joining the Dionysian cult will not of itself make a woman immoral. In short, Teiresias’s argument, like that of Cadmus, is a practical one. Dionysus has brought benefits to man; he is a powerful god, and he will become part of the life of their society whether they support him or not, so it makes sense to adapt to the reality of the situation.
2. How did the ancient Greeks regard Dionysus and how did they deal with the energies he represents?
Historically, the worship of Dionysus was imported from Asia and reached Greece not later than 700 BC. This was several hundred years before Euripides wrote The Bacchae, and by that time, the cult of Dionysus had become an accepted part of Greek life. In addition to his association with wine and revelry, Dionysus was regarded, as the Roman historian Plutarch later put it, as “the lord and bearer of all moist nature.” The god was seen as the sap in the tree and the blood in the animal. He was the abundance of natural life itself, the god of all the procreative and generative powers of nature—the blossom-bringer and the fruit-bringer. However, the tumultuous, violent events that take place in The Bacchae could not have taken place in the fifth century Athens in which Euripides lived most of his life. By that time the worship of Dionysus had been brought under the control of the state and much diluted from its original wildness. The idea was to channel the energies of Dionysus in a way that would honor them without being socially disruptive.
There were two main Dionysian festivals, one in the winter and the other in the spring. During the festivals there was a procession to the altar of Dionysus, where a goat was sacrificed, and fruit was offered to the god. There was a choral dance, known as the dithyramb, which would celebrate the birth of Dionysus. Out of the dithyramb developed more elaborate dramatic forms, with actors performing verses separate from the chorus. This led to the creation of tragedy. The Dionysian festivals thus became dramatic festivals in which the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed. 3. What is the significance of masculine and feminine symbolism in The Bacchae?
Pentheus and Dionysus may be bitter antagonists but they are also related; they are cousins, since Pentheus’s mother Agave is the sister of Dionysus’s mother Semele. They are like two sides of the same coin. Pentheus is masculine in his appearance; he is athletic with short hair. Dionysus is the opposite; he is feminine-looking, with long curly hair and fair skin. In ancient Greece, to be sun-tanned was a sign of masculinity; to be fair and untouched by the sun was a sign of effeminacy. Pentheus refers to Dionysus’s “girlish curls” (line 492), and in the stage directions that accompany Dionysus’s first appearance, he is referred to as “soft, even effeminate.” In some versions of the myths about Dionysus’s life, he was given by Hermes to Ino, to be raised as a girl. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus, in a fragment, referred to Dionysus as “the womanly one.” And of course, Dionysus’s followers are women. In the play, Pentheus also links Dionysus to the night, believing that he pursues Aphrodite, the goddess of love, in the night-time hours. The night is symbolically a feminine realm, in contrast to the rational daylight world in which the masculine Pentheus operates. Dionysus is also traditionally associated with water, understood as the element that regenerates and renews life. In The Bacchae, Dionysus’s  followers have only to strike the rocks with their wands and water pours out. Water, which is yielding and receptive, is also considered, for symbolic purposes, to be feminine.
Seen in this light, the play depicts a struggle by a society to find the correct balance between male and female elements in the human psyche. Civilization, the world of Thebes and its male citizens, with its rules, laws and established customs,  is the masculine world, shaped according to human reason. It represents in a sense the triumph of man over nature. But the Dionysian world is the opposite; it is a giving up, a surrender to the world of nature, which takes over the worshipper completely. Ideally in this dynamic between active and passive, masculine and feminine, both forces must be accommodated in their proper mode. However, this is not what happens in the play since the society depicted fails to find the correct equilibrium between opposing values, which leads to a catastrophe.
4. Should the play be interpreted as an attack on the Dionysian cult or as an endorsement of it?
The play has been interpreted in various ways, as an endorsement of the Dionysian cult and as a fierce rejection of it. Euripides’ intention cannot be known for certain. The balance shifts toward the end of the play. The early scenes present Pentheus as a bad ruler; all the voices, including the Chorus as well as Teiresias and Cadmus, speak in favor of the Dionysian cult, urging the citizens of Thebes to accept it. It seems that only Pentheus is against it, perhaps because as a representative of the ruling elite he feels threatened by a populist cult that was producing such wild, lawless behavior. The Chorus sings poetically of the benefits bestowed on man by Dionysus. Although the potential for violence and destruction is present from the beginning, the emphasis is on the god as the bringer of peace and contentment as well as a kind of raw, instinctual energy.
But the unmitigated savagery that results from Pentheus’s refusal to accept the cult, and Dionysus’s desire for revenge, may well tip the balance in the minds of the audience against the cult that can wreak such havoc. Dionysus’s revenge effectively destroys the royalty of Thebes. Pentheus suffers one of the most gruesome deaths in all Greek tragedy, and audience sympathy moves in his direction as the flawed human victim of a vengeful god. This is especially so since Pentheus has a moment of self-realization just before his death when he says, “I have done a wrong” (line 1120). He finally becomes aware, too late, of his own folly. Agave’s realization that in her frenzy she has torn apart her own son is also a potent reminder of the destructiveness of the new religion. Both Agave and Cadmus are driven into exile, despite the fact that Cadmus has done all he can to accept the presence of the god. In the end, Dionysus shows himself to be a ruthless, pitiless figure.
It may be, however, that Euripides was not choosing sides but condemning both of them. He wrote the play when he was living in exile, having left Athens only a year or so earlier. Athens was in decline and facing defeat to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and perhaps the play expresses Euripides exasperation at corruption and tyranny in Athens, the failure of its institutions to cope with the many challenges it faced, and his pessimism about the future.
5. What is the significance of dismemberment in the play?
There are two descriptions of dismemberment in the play, both performed by the crazed Maenads. The messenger describes how the women tear apart calves, heifers, and even bulls with their bare hands. Then Pentheus meets the same fate, torn limb from limb. The tearing to pieces of animals seems to have been a part of the ancient Dionysian rituals. The Greek term is sparagmos, which literally means “tearing apart.” As E. R. Dodds explains in his introduction to his edition of the play, the culminating act of the ecstatic dancing that took place at the winter festival of Dionysus, “was the tearing to pieces, and eating raw, of an animal body” (“Introduction,” The Bacchae, Clarendon Press, 1960, p. xvi). The significance of these acts appears to have been twofold. First, they commemorated the circumstances of Dionysus’s birth. In one version of the myth about his birth, Zeus’s wife Hera sent the Titans to kill the infant Dionysus. The Titans tore the infant apart and ate all but Dionysus’s heart, which was saved and then used by Zeus to re-create him in Semele’s womb. Hence Dionysus is “twice-born”; he undergoes a death and rebirth. In the festival, the idea appears to have been that the rending and eating of an animal not only recalled the circumstances of the birth of the god, but also mimicked his “rebirth,” since as a result of the ritual the followers became an embodiment of the god; they somehow acquired a kind of superabundant energy and strength that also put them in a state of mystical communion with nature. They are reborn as larger than themselves. Dodds also mentions the likelihood that at one point, ritual worship of Dionysus may have included a human sacrifice, which would give added meaning to the tearing apart of Pentheus in The Bacchae. The death of Pentheus, who, unlike the god, will not rise again, is also a cruel reminder, as is the entirety of The Bacchae, of the gulf that separates the human from the divine.

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