The Satire of Classical Maenadism

 Content warning: this article includes depictions and descriptions of sexual abuse.

In this article, we will examine how maenads and satyrs — the female and male mythical followers of Dionysus, respectfully — are represented in both classical iconographic and literary sources. The depictions of intoxication, sexual abuse, and animalistic features associated with maenads and satyrs ultimately serve to reinforce ideological standards for women to behave according to the accepted social and cultural beliefs in classical Greece by presenting the followers of Dionysus through satirical means.

Massimo, Stanzione. (1634). Sacrafice to Bacchus. Prado Museum, Spain.
Depiction of maenadic worship to Bacchus. Massimo, Stanzione. (1634). Sacrifice to Bacchus. Prado Museum, Spain. Shared on Wikimedia Commons.

Contextualizing: The Cult of Dionysus 

To contextualize this argument, we need to understand a little bit about the cult of Dionysus first. Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, was both a Greek and Roman divinity, primarily associated with wine production, wine drinking, intoxication, theatre, and ritualistic frenzy. As a son of Zeus and Semele, he is regarded as one of the twelve Olympian gods in the Greek Pantheon. The worship of Dionysus was enacted in numerous ways, including theatrical festivals such as the Festival of Dionysus in Athens, but also through ritualistic worship by both men and women in what is known as the cult of Dionysus. In depictions of Dionysus, be it literary or iconographic, the god is often accompanied by a band of worshippers made up of female and male followers known as maenads and satyrs. Maenads and satyrs are the mythological figures who act as the basis for Dionysian ritual done by men and women. Depictions of ritualistic behaviour by maenads and satyrs often emphasizes the drunken, frenzied state associated with Dionysus’ divinity, but also frequently display sexual abuse against maenads by satyrs.

Worshipping Dionysus


Since most source material about Dionysian worship comes from literary and iconographic depictions of mythological figures, there is not a lot known for certain about Dionysian worship enacted by real men and women. However, numerous depictions of ritualistic behaviour indicate common traits of worship throughout the cult of Dionysus, particularly from the fifth century BCE and onward (Isler- Kerényi, 2014, p. 1). Maenads, also known as bacchantes, are representative of both the mythological and real female followers of Dionysus and are typically depicted wearing fawnskins with ivy or a laurel in loose hair, and carry a staff known as a thyrsus (Isler-Kerényi, 2014, p. 6). The term “maenad” literally translates to “raving woman”, indicating the significance and connection between the worship of Dionysus and their typical ritualistic frenzied behaviour (Keuls, 1993, p. 357). The ritualistic behaviour associated with maenads and the maenadic worshippers of Dionysus is centered around dancing, preparing and drinking wine, and playing music (Fantham, 1996, p. 96). 

Brygos painter. (490-480 BCE). München, Staatliche Antikensammlungen.
Attic white ground red figure kylix depicting a dancing maenad with a snake on her head, holding a thyrsus and panther. Brygos painter. (490-480 BCE). München, Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Shared by ArchaiOptix on Wikimedia Commons.

A prominent theory about women engaging in maenadic worship considers how constraints against women in Athenian society may have played a role in their participation within Dionysian ritual. Women during the classical period had few rights, were unable to own property or vote, and were primarily valued for their ability to produce strong, male children (Fantham, 1996, p. 76). Maenadic worship of Dionysus usually included a “departure from household tasks, dancing to the excited rhythms of the [flute] . . . and drums” (Fantham, 1995, p. 96). The departure from traditional roles attributed to women in Athenian society likely influenced domestic household women to partake in Dionysian rituals (Fantham, 1995, p. 96). A predominant aspect of the maenadic departure from typical standards of women is emphasized through the virginal characteristic of maenads. While maenads are often pursued by satyrs attempting to sexually assault them, maenads are able to flee from the satyrs’ advances — in most cases. These women, who chose to remain virginal despite constant sexual advances by satyrs, remove themselves from the standard that women must bear children. As Allison Surtees notes in her chapter from Approaching the Ancient Artifact, the virginal aspect of maenads “transgresses the expected modesty and controlled behavior of a proper Athenian woman” (2014, p. 283). Women who did not or could not conform to the socio-biological norm of producing children would thus be drawn to the cult of Dionysus. This indicates how the representation of these women would inherently be critical since they did not fulfill their duty as society would have dictated (Kraemer, 1979, 78-9).  By participating in a drunken frenzy, these women remove themselves from the expectation that women should not participate in excessive drinking. Additionally, Matthew Dillon describes how “loose hair is a renunciation of the ordered domestic and social routine of women, and was a clear rite of liminality” (1963, p. 144). This small detail about the appearance of maenads in comparison to women who conformed to the gendered societal norms of Athens indicates a separation between women engaged in maenadic ritual and women who are praised for conforming to Athenian ideological standards. Despite what we can gather from limited classical sources, the emphasis appears to be on how bacchantes separate themselves from traditional roles associated with women.

To learn more about conceptions of virginity in antiquity, read Conceptual Virginity & Homosexual Themes From Antiquity


The male counterparts to maenads in Dionysian ritual and myth are known as satyrs or silens and are represented as part man, part animal creatures. Like maenads, satyrs have common traits throughout their representation in both iconographic and literary sources. Satyrs are typically depicted with animalistic faces, long tails and horse legs, as well as large and permanently erect phalluses (Isler- Kerényi, 2014, p. 4). While satyrs are mythological figures rather than actual men, the representation of satyrs in iconographic sources is often argued to be men dressing and behaving like satyrs rather than depictions of the mythological figures (Isler- Kerényi, 2014, p. 4).

Douris or the Painter of London. (490-480 BCE). Sackler Museum, Harvard University.,_with_Dionysos,_satyrs,_and_maenads,_kylix,_by_Douris_or_the_Painter_of_London_E55,_Attic_Greek,_490-480_BC,_red-figure_terracotta_-_Sackler_Museum_-_Harvard_University_-_DSC01774.jpg
Attic red figure kylix depicting a maenad fending off a satyr. Douris or the Painter of London. (490-480 BCE). Sackler Museum, Harvard University. Shared by Daderot on Wikimedia Commons.

Maenads and Satyrs in Iconography

Most of what scholars know about the worship of Dionysus comes from modern interpretations of iconographic sources, primarily those being attic vase paintings mostly from the fifth century BCE and onward. Maenads and satyrs are typically depicted together, with common traits seen among their representation in many iconographic sources. In many sources, both satyrs and maenads are depicted drinking wine, dancing, and behaving in a frenzied state (Isler-Kerényi, 2014, p. 14) The association between Dionysian worshippers and intoxication suggests that the representation of maenads and satyrs in iconographic sources is an exaggeration of real intoxicated men and women with the eventual aim to reinforce traditional gendered roles. In order to achieve this aim, the worship of Dionysus is exaggerated through the features and actions of maenads and satyrs in iconophraphic sources. The representation of maenadic worship as harmful then draws the association between bacchantes – the women who associate with Dionysus by rejecting traditional gender roles – and the violent and unpredictable depictions of maenads. This representation thus appears satirical, since the exaggeration and mockery of maenads in iconographic sources indicates how baccantes would have been received or criticized.

Sexual Abuse in Dionysian Iconography

In many iconographic sources depicting scenes of both maenads and satyrs, satyrs repeatedly attempt to rape maenads. In some iconographic sources, the satyrs manage to catch and rape these maenadic women. As Kathryn Topper notes in her chapter from A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, “the relationship between the images and literature (or images and ritual) is more complex than a simple matter of one medium illustrating the other” (2012, p. 144). The contradiction between scenes depicted on iconographic sources compared to literary sources or actual worship indicates how iconographic depictions of maenads and satyrs are more mythological rather than accurate representations of actual ritualistic behaviour and worship within the cult of Dionysus. As Ross Kraemer notes, the “accusations of unchastity [in iconographic representations of maenads] are themselves a form of social control, and we should be extremely cautious in seeing such accusations and their defenses as rooted in actual historical practices” (68). Both the sexual promiscuity of satyrs and their assaults of maenads in iconography could serve as a reiteration of “social control”, indicating the dangers of engaging in behaviours associated with Dionysian rituals. Thus, the explicit sexuality of maenads and satyrs as depicted in material art could be interpreted as a criticism or cautionary message for women not to involve themselves in the drunken, frenzied state associated with Dionysian worship.

Makron painter. (490-480 BCE). National Archaeological Museum, Florence.
Attic red figure kylix depicting a maenad fending off a satyr with a thyrsos. Makron painter. (490-480 BCE). National Archaeological Museum, Florence. Shared by ArchaiOptix on Wikimedia Commons.
Heiron. (490-480 BCE). München, Staatliche Antikensammlungen.
Attic red figure kylix depicting a maenad stabbing a satyr in the genitals with a thyrsos. Heiron. (490-480 BCE). München, Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Shared by ArchaiOptix on Wikimedia Commons.

In the above images, a satyr attempts to sexually assault a maenad who retaliates by stabbing the satyr with a thyrsus. As noted in the introductory section on maenads, an essential trait of these women is their desire to remain virginal. By physically preventing a satyr from engaging in sex, the maenads in the above images reiterate the separation between women within the cult of Dionysus and the ideal child-rearing women praised by societal standards. By avoiding sexual intercourse and thus avoiding conception of a child, the maenad then is avoiding the supposed duty of a woman to bear children (Keuls, 1993, p. 392). This could also indicate how the women who joined the cult of Dionysus did so to avoid the societal expectation for women to have children.

Euaion Painter. (460-450 BCE). Vatican Museums, Vatican City.,_Attic_red-figure_kylix,_by_the_Euaion_Painter,_460-450_BC_-_Museo_Gregoriano_Etrusco_-_Vatican_Museums_-_DSC01026.jpg
Attic red figure kylix depicting a maenad fleeing a satyr. Euaion Painter. (460-450 BCE). Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Shared by Daderot on Wikimedia Commons.

While modern perception of maenads may be positive — viewing these women as strong individuals who are able to oppose societal standards through their worship of Dionysus — the reception of their behaviour during the classical period was generally negative. In her article “The Maenad in Early Greek Art”, Sheila Mcnally explains how “the men [of Athenian society] might . . . be thought to view the ‘raving’ of the bacchante as some today do the ‘craziness’ of liberated women . . . We might then interpret the outbreak of hostility as fear of the Dionysiac devotee losing touch with the normal, losing her place in society” (1978, p.131). This “fear” of women who engage in carefree, drunken, and liberated rituals could indicate why bacchantes are thought to be frenzied or hysterical; because maenads are represented as opposing the typical roles of women in Athenian society, they are presented as “others” and thus carry a negative association with any other women who do not conform to societal norms. The association between women who are free from the confines of strict gendered expectations and the supposed “frenzied” behavior of maenads indicates how maenads — and other women who chose not to conform to societal expectations —must be “craz[y]” in order to behave outside of social and cultural norms. Ultimately, iconographic representations of drunken and frenzied maenads serve as a satire and mockery of any women who chose to liberate themselves from the gendered ideals dictated by societal standards.

To learn more about sexual abuse in antiquity, read Consent and Rape Culture in Ancient Greece.

Literary Sources

The most prominent source from antiquity depicting maenadic behaviour comes from Euripides’ play The Bacchae, which depicts Dionysus evoking a frenzied state upon the women of Thebes. An essential aspect to consider when examining literary sources from antiquity is that plays such as The Bacchae were mainly written by men, and for men. Classical plays, such as The Bacchae, were written to be performed at Dionysian festivals. While real women who worshipped Dionysus may have served as inspiration for the Theban women transformed into bacchantes, “the play may simply represent what male poets (and, on stage, male actors) imagined about women, or used them to imagine” (Fantham, 1996, p. 76). The exaggerated representation of maenads as wild and frenzied in iconographic and literary sources is in part by “deeply ingrained cliches that were critical to Athenian constructions of femininity. Particularly prominent is the idea of the maiden as a creature to be tamed. This metaphor, which cast the maiden as dangerously wild but also appealing and potentially productive, is well documented in Greek literature, art, and ritual” (Topper, 2012, 144). Thus, these works reflect mainly how men perceived women, often resulting in satirical criticism and mockery of women who do not conform to the gendered societal expectations placed upon them.

Other prominent figures from antiquity, such as Plato and Athenaeus, also reference both satyrs and maenads in their work, and emphasize the critical reception of typical frenzied behaviour associated with maenads.

Euripides’ Bacchae

If you are unfamiliar with the play The Bacchae by Euripides, watch this short plot summary for context.

Forthwith the whole land shall dance,
when Bromios leads the worshipful bands
to the mountain, to the mountain, where there rests
the throng of women,
driven by Dionysus in madness
from their looms and shuttles. (Euripides, p. 21)

In Euripides’ play, the women of Thebes are transformed from typical domestic figures into frenzied maenadic worshippers of Dionysus. As seen in the above quotation — as well as throughout the play — emphasis is placed on how maenadic behaviour is unlike the expected demeanor of Theban women, who appear absent from their typical duties of working at “looms and shuttles”. King Pentheus later exclaims how “from where I / stand my eyes cannot make out their bacchic frenzy. But if I climbed that tall-necked fir tree / overhanging the banks, I would see clearly the maenads’ shameful behavior” (p. 117). While the women entranced in a maenadic state are simply absent from their typical duties, their behaviour is described to be “shameful”. Since all women in the play are “driven in madness from their / houses” (Euripides, p. 15), the reader only learns the perception of male characters regarding the maenadic behaviour of the Theban women, which appears to be solely negative. When considering how the audience would have been primarily — if not entirely — men, the same negative response the male characters like Pentheus had to these maenadic women would likely be reflected by their own disapproval of such behaviour.

The conclusion of the play is also essential in understanding the critical nature of the narrative. After Pentheus is mistaken for a lion, the frenzied women — including his own mother, Agave — behead him while they are entranced in a maenadic state. When the women are returned to normal, Agave is horrified to learn that she and the other women killed her son (Euripides, p.139-41). The Bacchae concludes by emphasizing the dangers of engaging in a maenadic frenzy; a woman could unknowingly kill her own son if she participates in Dionysian ritual. Thus, the representation of maenads in Euripides’ play The Bacchae emphasizes how women who behave in a frenzied state associated with Dionysus are dangerous. As Cornelia Isler-Kerényi describes, “although the festivals dedicated to [Dionysus]— including the accompanying dramatic performances— presented an opportunity for ritually controlled emotional eruptions, their eventual aim was to confirm the order of the polis” (Isler-Kerényi, 2014, p. 2-3), indicating how plays such as The Bacchae serve to reiterate upon cultural and social expectations within the polis. The exaggerated representation of maenadic worship in The Bacchae exemplifies the satirical nature of maenadic representation in literary sources by deliberately portraying maenadic women as dangerous and uncontrollable.

Plato, Athenaeus, and Barbarism

In Plato’s work Laws, he describes how excessive wine-drinking is behaviour associated with barbarians (Plato, ca. 370 B.C.E./2000, i.637E). Athenaeus shares a similar view in his work The Learned Banqueters, attributing the representation of frenzied dancing satyrs and maenads in satyr plays to a barbarian named Sicinnus (XIV p. 187). While these examples do not directly criticize maenads or women involved in Dionysian ritual, they portray how the excessive drinking associated with maenadic worship of Dionysus may have been received by men outside of the Dionysian cult.

In Conclusion

Cornelis Lens, Andries. (1765). Dance of the Maenad (The transformation of an Apulian man into an olive tree). Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank.
A group of dancing maenads. Cornelis Lens, Andries. (1765). Dance of the Maenad (The transformation of an Apulian man into an olive tree). Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank. Shared on Wikimedia Commons.

As we have explored in this article, iconographic representations of maenads and satyrs ultimately criticize women who are involved in Dionysian rituals by emphasizing the wild nature of maenads paired with characteristics that oppose the standards for women to be modest and bear children; rather than presenting actual Dionysian worship, maenadic iconography demonstrates the supposed harmful effects of associating with maenadic ritual. The effect of this exaggerated representation is to mock any woman who does not conform to traditional gendered societal expectations, ultimately promoting conformity. Similarly, examples from literary sources display how maenadic worship can be dangerous, since women supposedly will lose all control when engaged in Dionysian ritual. Thus, both iconographic and literary sources depicting maenads and maenadic ritualistic behaviour aim to portray the supposed dangers of Dionysian worship through satirical exaggeration — rather than illustrating the real worship of women within the cult of Dionysus— in order to encourage women to conform to the dominate societal expectations for women.


Athenaeus. (2011). The Learned Banqueters, Volume VII: Books 13.594b-14. Edited and translated by S. Douglas Olson. Loeb Classical Library 345. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Demetriou, D., & Avramidou, Amalia. (2014). Approaching the Ancient Artifact : Representation, Narrative, and Function, a festschrift in honor of H. Alan Shapiro. Berlin: De Gruyter. 

Dillon, Matthew. (2001). Women at the Margins of Greek Religion. In Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (pp. 149-192). Routledge. 

Euripides. (2003) Bacchae. Iphigenia at Aulis. Rhesus. Edited and translated by David Kovacs. Loeb Classical Library 495. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fantham, Elaine. (1995). Women in the classical world : Image and text (Acls humanities e-book). New York: Oxford University Press. 

Isler-Kerényi, C. (2014). Dionysos in Classical Athens : An Understanding Through Images. ProQuest Ebook Central 

James, Sharon L, & Dillon, Sheila. (2012). A Companion to Women in the Ancient World (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World). Chicester: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. 

Keuls, E. (1993). The Reign of the Phallus : Sexual politics in ancient Athens. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 

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. 

Kraemer, Ross S. (1983). Women in the religions of the Greco-Roman world. Religious Studies Review, 9(2), 127-139. 

Plato. (1926). Laws, Volume I: Books 1-6. Translated by R. G. Bury. Loeb Classical Library 187. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Sheila McNally. (1978). The Maenad In Early Greek Art. Arethusa, 11(1/2), 101-135. 

2 thoughts on “The Satire of Classical Maenadism

  1. Hello!

    I am a third year student actor at Arts University Bournemouth in the U.K. and currently writing my dissertation on Women and the Theatre of Dionysus. I want to include some of this article in my writing, however, I am uncertain as to is the writer of this piece. Would you be able to clarify the name of the author? Otherwise, I may not be able to include it in my essay!

    Thank you so much for your work,
    All the best,


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