Female Followers of Dionysus
Who were the Maenads?
To be put in short, maenads were female followers of Dionysos. The Greek god Dionysos, who is equivalent to the Roman god of Bacchus, was representative of wine and madness. The practice of maenadism is thought to have started in Thebes, coinciding with the birth place of Dionysus. It is important to note that all maenads were adult women. In Matthew Dillon’s book entitled ‘Girls and Women in the Classical Greek Religion’, the definition of a maenad is further expanded into the activities of maenads.
“…women devotees of Dionysos, possessed by him and dancing ecstatically in his honor.” (Dillon 140)
What did Maenads look like?
Depictions of what Maenads looked like can be found on vases, such as kraters, which were used as wine casters. Maenads present distinct clothing, hairstyles, and accessories specific for their religious purposes. Much
Hairstyle: The hair style of maenads was loose and free-flowing in the world. This symbolized the care-free mentality that maenads were described to have had.
Thrysus: Arguably the most distinctive accessory of the maenad is the thrysus maenads are depicted in carrying. The thrysus, made out of fennel, was used to symbolize fertility and pleasure that is associated in the worship of Dionysos. The pine cone, placed on top of the thrysus, was used to symbolize the spreading of seed.
“…[maenads] letting hair loose down their shoulders, tied up the fawn skins…” (Bacchae, 860-861)
Fawn skin dress and panther throw: Maenads were depicted as being covered in eithier fawn or panther skins. Believed to be representative of wild tendencies maenads had, the panther and or fawn skin would be draped around the neck of the maenad over her gown. The emphasis of animal behaviour the maenad are described of having is highlighted in the fawn skin dress and panther throw.
Snake crown: Common to practice of religious activities, the snake crown maenads are depicted in having is to symbolize the festival as religious. Snakes were used to symbolize religious festivities during the Classical Age in Athens.
Barefoot: Maenads are depicted with bare feet in both text and legend. Religious worship of Dionysus would take place outside. The bare feet symbolize the Earthly roots of Dionysus as well as to symbolize the chaotic dancing of the maenads.
When did Maenads appear in text?
The most famous account of maenadism is found in Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, written in the Classical period of Greek history around the year 405 BCE. The play describes the tragic death of King Pentheus and the “dangers” associated with the worship of Dionysus. It is through the problematic behaviour of maenads that King Pentheus is murdered. In King Pentheus’ attitude towards the women who worship Dionysus, the idea of male displeasure towards women involvement in Bacchic rituals is expressed. As Pentheus entered the room where Cadmus and Tiresias were, Pentheus expressed his displeasure for females leaving their domestic duties saying:
“…but I hear about the disgusting things going on,
Here in the city-women leaving home
To go to Silly Bacchic rituals,
Cavorting there in the mountain shadows” (The Bacchae, lines 271-274)
Throughout the story, Pentheus detested the worship of Dionysus and banned worship of the god. The idea that a respectable woman’s place is in her oikos, busying herself in matters the belonged to the oikos is not only found in the testimony brought by Pentheus but is also found in Simonides poem on Women. The one woman who is free from error, according to Simonides, is that of the bee women who he defined as the following:
“The household that she manages will thrive;
A loving wife beside her loving man.” (Women, 87-88).
The above text showed misogyny towards women who leave their house for common deeds. Athenian, and Theben, women were to weave in their household. Women were wanted to nurture their children and have homophrosyne with their husbands.Maenads are practicing the rituals in the mountains, thus, proving male ideology dominated over the reputation of maenads.
In the poem of Women by Simonides he also talks about a woman who is always gossiping and is the center of attention. Guy Hedreen did an extensive study on the Hellenic period of Greece entitled “The Journal of Hellenistic Studies”. In his analyzation of towards maenads, he points out that Maenads have the tendency to fit this exact description.
Since maenads are typically found in tragedy, “…have been popular in tragic poetry as experience of viewing and participating in drama. “ (Hedreen, 57, end note 68).
The very existence of the maenad then is to participate in this chaotic drama filled environment. This environment is not of one that Simonides would want his wife to be a part of. Maenads were of wild and erratic manner.
The story of the eventual death of King Pentheus by his mother Agave is told throughout the play. In relation to the relevance of the event towards the idea of male disposition towards women in these festivals is put to the fore front. Agave, who once resisted worship of Dionysus, became a maenad. In becoming this maenad, the god Dionysus put her under his curse of madness. It is by this madness, Dionysus successfully tricked Agave into killing her own son. Agave is proud of what she has done Agave does not realize the what she has done until Cadmus talks her out of the Dionysiac trance.
While in this madness Agave is proud of the kill of the panther, Pentheus, that is proved in the following text, “ I’ve left my shuttle and my loom, and risen to great things, catching wild beasts….I’ve captured him.” (Bacchae, 1525-1529).
It could be said that the stated text above prove that maenads were actually under the state of madness, but, in fact it shows that Agave was punished by the God Dionysus himself. Reflecting the ideology of the time,the myth of the state of madness that is being referred to is the lawlessness and free spirit that Agave had. To an Athenian man, the very fact of a woman doing tasks by herself was feared.
Agave realizes the err or her ways when Cadmus made her clear her mind free from Dionysus. Cadmus makes her do her own cleansing of her mind, spirit, and soul and then all is restored. In analyzation of this part of the tragedy, Cadmus is representing the norm of women and cleansing her of her foreign influences of Dionysus.
As previously stated, maenadic behaviour can be correlated to that of typical behaviour of women in religious festivities.
In his article entitled “Greek Maenadism Reconsidered”, Jan N. Bremmer says, “ Maenadic behaviour thus fits in well with other important female rites like the Thesmophoria…which all enacted elements of disruption of inversion, such as sexual abstinence or promiscuity…and women leaving home.” (Bremmer, 276).
The religious rite festivals are sought to be a source of female empowerment. During these festivals, women would be by themselves with other women.
*all images taken from wikimedia commons*
Bremmer, Jan N. ?Greek Maenadism Reconsidered.? Vol. 55, 1984, pp. 267?286., www.jstor.org.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/stable/20184041. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.
Dillon, Matthew. “Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion.” Bookdepository.com, Taylor & Francis Ltd, 14 Dec. 2001, http://www.bookdepository.com/Girls-Women-Classical-Greek-Religion-Matthew-Dillon/9780415202725.
Stafford, Emma J., and Judith Herrin. Personification in the Greek World. Aldershot, Ashgate, 2005. Lnp, login.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/login?url=https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lnp&AN=77-16975&site=eds-live. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.
Semonides, et al. Women: Joseph Addison’s Translation of a Poem. Lock’s Press, 1983.