maenad with torn-up animal Background and Images for the
Bacchae

Birth of Dionysus: Dionysus is actually related to the royal house of Thebes, sharing his genealogy with the doomed family of Oedipus. Cadmus, king of Thebes, had four daughters; the god Zeus was the lover of one of them, Semele. Hera, jealous as usual, disguised herself as a old woman and encouraged Semele to doubt whether her lover was indeed Zeus. Semele, who was already pregnant, prevailed upon Zeus to swear that he would do whatever she wanted and then demanded that he make love to her in all his divine majesty, as he does with Hera. Having taken an oath, Zeus was forced to accede to her wish, and poor Semele perished in the heat of Zeus's divine passion (see Peter Paul Rubens’ painting of this scene). Since Semele's child could not yet survive, Hermes sewed the infant up in the thigh of Zeus, from which he was later born as a god (the birth is represented on an Etruscan gold pendant). Hermes gave the child to an old silenus to be raised among the nymphs and satyrs of the mountains and forests (represented in a Pompeiian wall painting; this vase shows the adult Dionysus with a silenus, whose shaggy costume possibly suggests a satyr play).

Once Dionysus reached adulthood, he travelled with his bands of satyrs and maenads through Asia and Asia Minor, introducing to these places his own rituals and worship as well as the production of wine. In one of the many paradoxes associated with this god, mythology represents him as Greek in origin yet experienced by the Greeks as alien, foreign, eastern. Many myths depict him as meeting opposition wherever he went and as fiercely punishing those who refused to worship him. In Thrace, for example, king Lycurgus expelled Dionysus and imprisoned his followers; the god returned, released the maenads, and drove Lycurgus mad, so that he chopped up his own son with an axe, believing he was pruning a vine. Eventually his own subjects caused Lycurgus to be torn to pieces by wild horses.

statue of DionysusAttributes and Followers of Dionysus: Dionysus was also called Bacchus (“the mad one”), Lusios (“the loosener, the liberator”), Bromius (“the roaring one”), and Evius (from the Bacchic cry “Evohé” ). He was depicted either as a dark, bearded figure or as a beautiful beardless youth. In either case, he was often shown wearing a crown of grapes, vine leaves and ivy and carrying a thyrsus (a long staff topped with a pine cone or ivy). He was particularly associated with wild, untamed natural forces of all kinds, especially the intoxicating power of wine (the god himself forms the handle of this drinking horn, for example) and with strong irrational drives within humans, especially sexual passion (outside his shrine on the island of Delos stood a stone pillar crowned with a huge, erect phallus). Dionysus was associated with many animals, particularly large cats that rend and tear their prey: notice how this ivory statuette with the archaic smile caresses the head of a fawning lion. Dionysus is sometimes shown riding on a panther or in a chariot pulled by tigers. Dionysus was also linked with animals known for their wild sexual energy, such as bulls, goats, asses; indeed, he was sometimes called “the horned god.” Although raw sexual energy was part of the province of Dionysus, the god was linked in mythology with only one major female, Ariadne, the daughter of king Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus escape from the labyrinth after he had killed the Minotaur. Theseus subsequently abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos, from which she was rescued by Dionysus and made his consort. A beautiful Attic cup shows Eros celebrating the union of Dionysus and Ariadne; see also this large Roman cameo.

The followers of Dionysus were denizens of the mountains and forests—sileni, satyrs, nymphs, maenads. Satyrs were half-man, half-animal creatures, represented as carefree, intoxicated, sexually aroused, and brutish (satyr and Dionysus; satyrs playing while a chorus of women dance); like the maenads, they were entranced by music and dancing. The female worshippers of Dionysus were called maenads (“raving women”), bacchae or bacchantes (“mad women”), or thyiads (“ecstatic women,” with a sexual connotation). Like Dionysus himself, these women dressed in animal skins, wore their hair loose, wreathed themselves with ivy, vine leaves and even snakes, and carried a thyrsus.

For more information and images on this topic, consult my page on Dionysus and Greek Drama.

Core Ritual of Dionysus: The core ritual associated with the worship of Dionysus was orgiastic, meaning that it involved states of trance-like ecstasy, “outside-of-oneselfness,” merging with and possession by the god. It was celebrated every two years, at mid-winter near the time of the solstice, on barren mountain tops, especially Mt. Parnassus overlooking Delphi. There were three parts to this ritual:

These facets of Dionysian ritual are woven into many myths. For example, the poet Orpheus angered some maenads by rejecting all women, so these women caught and dismembered him.

Euripides Bacchae: Euripides draws on all these aspects of Dionysus in his play, which is the only extant tragedy based on Dionysus himself and the only one in which a god appears disguised as a human being. The play opens in Thebes. The elderly Cadmus has relinquished the throne to his grandson Pentheus, who is still a beardless youth. The god, disguised as a human priest of Dionysus and accompanied by a chorus of Asiatic maenads, has come to bring his worship to the city of his birth. But Thebes, except for the aged Cadmus and Teiresias, refused to acknowledge the divinity of Dionysus. So the god has taken possession of all the women of the city, including the three surviving daughters of Cadmus—Ino, Autonoe, and Agave, mother of Pentheus—and these women range throughout the countryside as maenads. Pentheus confronts the supposed priest of Dionysus, taunts him for his effeminate appearance and “bedroom eyes,” which he contrasts with his own devotion to athletic and warlike masculinity. He sends a unit of soldiers to hunt down the Theban maenads and bring them back into the city, but the armed warriors are defeated by the unarmed women. He seeks to enslave the Asiatic maenads (the chorus) and puts the priest in jail, but Dionysus creates an earthquake and fire that topples the palace. Then the god takes over the mind of Pentheus, playing on his prurient sexual voyeurism. For Pentheus has from the beginning imagined that the Theban maenads are engaging in all sorts of sexual escapades (though all Euripides’ descriptions show this to be false). Dionysus encourages Pentheus in his desire to spy on the women, eventually persuading him to put on a woman's dress so he will not be detected. And so the god takes over the mind and will of Pentheus. When the hapless young man goes among the Theban maenads, they perceive him as an animal, whom Dionysus urges them to hunt down. They capture him and tear him limb from limb. Agave proudly carries the head of the supposed “lion” back into Thebes, where Dionysus brings her back to her senses and she discovers to her horror that she is holding the severed head of her own son. Dionysus has exacted his dreadful revenge; too late, all of Thebes acknowledges his terrifying godhead.

December, 1999
Barbara F. McManus
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