The Bacchae & Dionysus
He is known for his close relationship with wine and ekstasis (removing one from themselves), but he is also a ladies man. Who is he? Well, he’s Dionysus. Dionysus is more than just wine and good times. He is the only god who is distinguished by his association with females in both myth and cult practice. Women are constantly alongside him “as mother, nurse, opponent and supporter – these collectives, hostile and friendly alike, serve as prototypes of Dionysiac worshipers” (Lyons, p. 103). Dionysus is always accompanied by semi- divine female followers called maenads, and often also mortal followers called bacchants. Dionysus is “the only god who repeatedly has non erotic contact with women” (Lyons, p. 94). If your’e not familiar with ancient greek myth, pretty much every other god is unrestrainedly horny, and frequently takes advantage of mortal women. Dionysus is truly unique from other gods: “female figures are prominent in his myths, and his cult is marked by a level of participation by women unknown for any other male divinity”(Lyons, p. 108). Dionysus’ unique association with women also places him within a larger context as a god who has come to represent a union between gender roles, violence and drama: “Dionysus does not simply mix up or blur gender roles: rather, the god draws on the feminine as a source of his power” (McClure, p. 329). After-all, it is said that behind every great man theres a woman, and in the case of Dionysus that rings true. The myth that has exemplified Dionysus’ unique ability to draw power from the feminine and create gendered violence maintains a continued relevance on our contemporary stages. The play at the centre of all of this is the Bacchae.
The Bacchae is a fifth century BCE play written by Euripides. Immediately following its conception this play was regarded as the most rebellious and the most wild ride of Greek tragedy, ever. In my opinion it still is, and if you haven’t read it, you really should. Euripides’ contemporaries hated this play like parents in the sixties hated Led Zeppelin. To me, that is what makes it so special, and I think that is why it has kept its appeal. In the play, “the women who serve Dionysus take on certain male roles, if not male characteristics” (Lyons, p.109). Dionysus’ divine qualities of ekstasis create him as a god who, through removing one from themselves, removes women from their traditional gendered roles, which would have women remain home and unseen weaving at the loom.
Dionysus is also distinguished as one divinity who is shrouded in gender ambiguity. In his myths, such as the Bacchae, he is regarded as a son and is also constantly described as feminine in appearance and dress. One thing that is clear, is how when “the posse arrives [Dionysus and his women followers, that is], – violence begins. What does this tell us? The shock of the new will prepare its own unveiling in old and brutal ways” (Carson, 2017). This is referencing the resistance of Dionysus as a new god in the Bacchae. Dionysus, requires total surrender from mortals, and if he is met with resistance, he can bring on violence in unparalleled ways (seriously, read the Bacchae and you’ll see what I mean).
Mortal resistance towards the god is echoed in Pentheus, who in the Bacchae resists the god and ends up being brutally murdered and ripped apart by his mother and her sisters (Carson, 2017) (moral of the story, don’t disrespect Dionysus). Pentheus struggles with every aspect of Dionysus, from his wardrobe, to his feminine appearance and perhaps most of all, (dramatic pause) he cannot handle the lack of knowledge he has about the bacchants activities: “despite Pentheus insistence that it is sex, wine and kettledrums that characterize the women’s ritual, the messenger reports that the women are rather conducting themselves chastely and temperately” (McClure, p. 334). He just really, really wants to be included.
But it is true, the bacchants do conduct themselves relatively peacefully, (aside from their hunting escapades, which is a whole other thing) until they catch Pentheus spying on them. Dionysus uses Pentheus’ curiosity about the bacchants proceedings to lure him into the bacchant’s hands. Pentheus, by Dionysus’ suggestion chooses to dress as a female bacchant so that he will not be recognized while spying. (Carson, 2017) The Bacchae is “telling the story of a man who cannot admit he would rather live in the skin of a woman, and a god who seems to combine all sexualities into a single ruinous demand for adoration. Dionysus is the god of intoxication. Once you fall under his influence, there is no telling where you will end up”(Carson, 2017). One thing is for certain, “dionysiac ecstasy may be beautiful but it is also very dangerous” (Perris, p. 52). If Pentheus still had his head, I’m sure he would agree.
Clearly, Dionysus is a god who is all about total acceptance, and will administer brutal vengeance to those who resist. But more importantly, the Bacchae shows that “the common thread linking Dionysus to both drama and wine is that the god created in his worshippers a state of ecstacy” (Mikalson, p. 163). Dionysus is celebrated for passing on ekstasis to his followers and anyone part taking in his processions (Lyons, 2014). Because of this freedom, female characters associated with Dionysus often transcend traditional gendered roles expected in fifth century BCE Athens, of wife or mother, and perform actions that are uncharacteristically female and characteristically male: “freedom from one’s usual self, I think is what the truth for women about cults is associated from Dionysus, an appropriate and designated space free for everyone from the typical roles of one’s life” (Mikalson, p.163). After-all, a bitter regard towards the bacchants is reflected in Pentheus’ reference to the them as, “that mob of women, who rebelled against shuttle and loom answering the urge of Dionysus” (Cacoyannis, p. 10). Pentheus embodies the feeble power of resistance in the bold face of the god: “Accordingly, the worst punishment for the bacchants’ transgression that the vigilant Pentheus can conceive is “either [to] have them sold as slaves or, [to] put their hands to different work [at his looms]” (Hersh, 1992, p.5). Unfortunately, for Pentheus, Dionysus does not share his lack of imagination for plotting punishments.
Naturally, the peculiar nature of this play has been heavily disputed and explored in scholarship: “one possible answer would be that drama in fifth century Athens is a radical genre that challenges social norms and exposes the constructed nature of gender identity, and in particular of female inferiority, by mobilizing female characters who actively resist the identifications offered by their culture” (Goff, 2004, p. 292). Or another answer, could be like that one floating around in the seventies that suggested that “the death and dismemberment of Pentheus reflects the inversion of their [the bacchant women’s’] maternal loyalties- the slaughter of Pentheus [as] the vicarious slaughter of each woman’s own offspring” (Kraemer, 1979, p. 67). Alternatively in that same article it was suggested that “women whose socio-biological status is in a situation of flux or uncertainty are more vulnerable to peripheral possession and more in need of its therapeutic advantage than are women whose social status is relatively assured” (Kraemer, 1979, p. 79). This article compared a study of Caribbean and African women’s’ possession cults by a someone called Lewis to ancient Greek women: “Lewis suggests that the system is able to function precisely because the men recognize, at least up to a point, the legitimacy of the women’s grievances and thus permit the syndrome to go on” (Kraemer, 1979, p.76). Perhaps, if Pentheus had recognized the legitimacy of Dionysus he wouldn’t have been ripped apart from limb to limb. But, it’s more likely that women’s grievances aren’t a ‘syndrome’ at all.
At this point I hope we are all thinking the same thing, that “the notion that a woman’s culture might unproblematically link people of different races or classes [must be] rigorously questioned. Like most interpretive tools, the concept of ‘women’s culture’ is most powerful when it is put to work within a model of the entire society in question to account for the specifics of different women’s lives within that society.” (Goff, 2004, p.228). I’m sure there are parts of that theory that have merit, but it is in dire need to be dragged, I’m sure kicking and screaming, into the twenty first century.
Rockstar Dionysus? I think so…
Beginning in the sixties, Dionysus was also revisited by everyone (like actually, founder of Rolling Stone magazine to some good old philosophers). He was a groovy phenomenon on the minds of philosophers like the Herbert Marcuse (who was super into Freud, and apparently also digging Dionysus) to “rock n’ roll” critics like Lester Bangs (who wrote an article about Jim Morrison titled: “Jim Morrison, Bozo Dionysus a decade later”, which is ceaselessly funny to me). Dionysus was everywhere and still is, even in kpop. He has become sort of cultural phenomena, adopted as a way to reconcile with changing social attitudes towards gender and women: “In the 1960s a modern audience for performances and new versions of Bacchae could almost believe that this puzzling, liberating, and potentially dangerous god had re-emerged in a contemporary form” (Foley, 2019, p 58). Because the nature of Dionysus made gender dichotomy tangible, the first wave feminists clung to it like glue.
For the first time, “in the post classical west, a growing number of productions of the Bacchae began to appear on both western and non-western stages in response to complex social and political transitions” (Foley, 2019, p. 162). Where gender disparity thrives, Dionysus shall follow. Dionysus’ rise to stardom brought forth what his myths, such as the Bacchae had to offer when adapted to the modern stage: “seeing anything from a staged reading to a full fledged performance of Euripides nearly always brings out aspects of the text that scholars may have failed to notice or evaluate properly” (Foley, 2019, p. 2). Because of the nature of both the Bacchae and Dionysus, the play was revisited in the sixties as part of the first wave feminism movement. Stage adaptions such as Margaret Duffys Rites (1969) gave way to later renditions like Caryl Churchill and David Lans Mouth full of Birds (1986) and most recently, David Ives Venus in Furs (2010). Dionysian myths were a rich crop to pluck from: “plots introducing Dionysus’s divinity can generate a comparable psychological experience on a collective level” (Foley, page 58). Or at least, that’s what I like to think.
Playwrights began to explore gender roles”by re-casting the elements of the Bacchae within the seemingly incongruous frame of female experience” (Hersch, 1992, p. 2). Maureen Duffys’ play, Rites, presents the misidentification of a male spy on women in a modern restroom. The women in Duffys’ play misidentify another woman to be a male spy, and end up killing her, only then to realize what they have done (Duffy, 1969). A Mouthful of Birds on the other hand, adopts multiple narratives of tormented characters, representing Pentheus’ life. These plays “implicitly assert, [how] women are equally capable of violence, but theirs serves a function different from male violence in disrupting, rather than reifying, the stability of the social order by calling attention to societies fundamental cleavage along gender lines”(Hersh, 1992, p. 422). In my opinion, Violent women are often alienated characters who are regarded as inhumanely reckless when compared to the typical roles of violent males, who are almost always justified and even celebrated for violent acts.
More recently, a modern take on the late nineteenth century novella Venus in Furs was adapted for stage production by David Ives in 2010. The play Venus in Furs “moves from challenging nineteenth-century masculine sexual stereotypes about gender and its performance, to revealing how contemporary views can unconsciously reinstitute them, and finally to establishing through a theatrical performance engineered by a divinity in disguise a new feminist interpretation of these same issues” (Foley, 2019, p.58). What happens in the play occurs essentially over the course of an audition, a female actress called Vanda shifts the power imbalance between her and her male caster. The original book has the goddess Venus involved, and needless to say all versions of this story are strange even for me, BUT, “Vanda[‘s] superhuman meta-theatrical powers permit similar reversals to Venus in Fur, while challenging plots that traditionally link female liberation with (especially anti-male) violence and the female gender with a propensity for irrationality and uncontrolled desire” (Foley, 2019, p. 55). By showing women in untraditionally powerful roles, the perpetuated dichotomy or gendered violence is apparent. The echoes of the Bacchae in this play are, the “Bacchae, unlike the novella, demonstrates the artificiality of traditional gender/social roles under the influence of Dionysus.” (Foley, 2019, p. 67). By using Bacchae as a model, all adaptions expose the framework that creates the disparity between female and male violence. In other words, when you combine wild ‘n’ weird, you get something pretty cool.
In ancient and contemporary drama, albeit myth or theatre, “men have long been considered the “aggressive sex,” while women have historically been viewed as the ‘passive sex,’ and men and women’s social roles have been used as evidence to justify this behavioural dichotomy” (Hersh, 1992, p.413). Myths like the Bacchae stand alone, because that dichotomy is certainly not perpetuated by the bacchants from Thebes. The key aspect of women in the Bacchae is the transcendence of this dichotomy through Dionysus, making the “ultimate societal transgressor the feminist murderer, for she poses a double threat not only to the solidity of the social order but to the stability of patriarchal norms as well” (Hersh, 1992, p.415). The relevance of the Bacchae on the modern stage is “to disrupt the illusory harmony of the community and to make tangible both the gender divide and the power imbalance inherent in this divide. It is precisely the mythology of harmony which feminist re-visions of The Bacchae expose as being illusory and, to some extent, fraudulent”(Hersh, 1992, p. 416). Because of Dionysus’ relation to ekstasis, he provides a clear image about what behaviour traditionally is assigned to women and what is not: “Under his [Dionysus’] influence, gender and cultural boundaries can appear socially constructed rather than natural and inevitable” (Foley, 2019, p. 57). And, sometimes you have to grab those gender divides by the hands and feet and rip them right apart.
In my opinion, in media and pop culture and all their various forms, “violence [continues to] remain a distinctly and perhaps mythically gendered category” (Hersh, 1992, p. 418). Euripides “created women whose strength, for good or for bad, [guaranteed] their survival on the modern stage” (Walton, J. Michael, 2014, p.61). Although, among all of these modern interpretations of the Bacchae, it was unlikely that ancient women truly had all of the liberties and freedoms that were imagined by Americans in the sixties, it was the “Bacchae [that] temporarily offer[ed] liberation and empowerment to the god’s followers – especially to his female followers, the [Bacchae] fails to offer any permanent challenge to traditional gender roles or clichés about female vulnerability to irrational forces” (Foley, 2019, p. 60). What I think has been shown here, is that the Bacchae and Dionysus have retained a rebellious and untraditional relationship with women and gender that has been adopted in many ways (that I hope Dionysus approves of, but I guess we would know if he didn’t). The resurgence of Dionysus in the sixties happend because both he and his myths served as a taproot for “both the converts and skeptics, [who] shared a common need for a sign of the times that could attest to their ability to set the eras chaotic urgencies within a longer and broader view” (Carlevale, 2005, p. 79). To think it was all brought on by a bunch of hippies.
The parallels are endless, just take this 1967 song by Velvet Underground in all their excellence titled Venus in Furs.
Cacoyannis, Michael. (1987). Euripides: The Bacchae. Canada: First Meridian Printing.
Carson, A. (2015). Bakkhai : Euripides. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Carlevale, J. (2005). Dionysus Now: Dionysian Myth-History in the Sixties. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 13(2), 77-116. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/29737263
Deborah Lyons. (2014). Dionysiac Heroines. In Gender and Immortality (p. 103). Princeton University Press.
Goff, Barbara. (2004). Citizen Bacchae. (1st ed. A Joan Palevsky book in Classical Literature). Berkley, California: University of California Press.
Herrero de Jáuregui, M., Jiménez San Cristóbal, Ana Isabel, Bernabé Pajares, Alberto, & Martin Hernández, Raquel. (2013). Redefining Dionysos. (Mythos Eikon Poiesis). Berlin: De Gruyter.
Hersh, Allison. (1992). ‘How Sweet the Kill’: Orgiastic female violence in contemporary re- visions of Euripides’ The Bacchae. Modern Drama, 35(3), 409-423.
Helen Foley Venus In Furs, 2014 play by David Ives. Foley, Helene P. (2019). Venus in Furs: Remaking Bacchae in America. Helios (Lubbock), 46(1), 57-73.
Kraemer, Ross S. (1979). Ecstasy and Possession: The Attraction of Women to the Cult of Dionysus. The Harvard Theological Review, 72 (1-2), 55- 80.
McClure, Laura K. (2017). A Companion to Euripides. Somerset: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Mikalson, Jon D. (2009). Ancient Greek Religion (Blackwell ancient religions). Chicester: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Nathaniel, Desrosiers. (2014). Wine and Spirits. In “The One Who Sows Bountifully” (p. 203). SBL Press.
Spineto, Natale. (2011). “Athenian Identity, Dionysiac Festivals and the Theatre.” A Different God? Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2011. 299-3
Utheim, Natalie Sofie. (2019). The Ancient Greek Festival of Anthesteria.
Walton, J. Michael. (2014). Euripides our contemporary (Plays and Playwrights). Methuen Drama.
Collier, John. (1886). Priestess of Bacchus (taken from Wikimedia commons).
Ramona Reeves and Lynn Odell in director Brad Mays’ stage production of Euripides The Bacchae, (taken from Wikimedia commons), 1997, Los Angeles.
Roman fresco depicting Pentheus being torn by maenads, (taken from Wikimedia commons), Pompeii.
The Women of Amphissa by Lawrence Alma Tadema (taken from Wikimedia commons).
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