Euripides, The Bacchae



Euripides’ play The Bacchae (a.k.a. The Bacchants), posthumously produced in 405 bce, addresses issues of rationalism vs. religion. The play begins with Dionysus, disguised as a human, before the tomb of his mother Semele at the palace of Thebes. In addition to winning new converts here, he is enacting vengeance against his mother’s sisters — Agave, Autonoë, and Ino — who slanderously called Semele a liar about the father of her fetus being Zeus. They are stricken mad and roaming Mount Cithaeron, near Thebes, with other Maenads (or Bacchae — the sane worshippers of Dionysus who function as the Chorus).

Old Cadmus, founder of Thebes, has abdicated, leaving the rule to his grandson Pentheus, son of Agavê, who stands adamantly against bacchanalianism. Cadmus and the ubiquitous prophet Tiresias, though both ancient, don fawnskins, carry thyrsi, and dance in honor of the arrival of Dionysus: it makes them feel young again. Cadmus may be treating the event more like a festival than as a sacred happening.

Pentheus enters, refers disparagingly to “the parvenu god Dionysus” (133), and claims that the god’s female followers pretend to be divinely inspired priestesses but really “creep off to lonely places to serve the lusts of men” (133). Cadmus and Tiresius try to calm Pentheus, Tiresias saying that “those who are touched by madness possess no small measure of prophecy” (135); but Penteus considers the old men ridiculous. He announces that he has imprisoned some of the worshippers and he will flush out more. He has an APB out for a foreigner “with long yellow curls smelling of perfumes, / with flushed cheeks and the spells of Aphrodite / in his eyes. His days and nights he spends / with women and girls, dangling before the the joys / of initiation in his mysteries” (894). He accuses Tiresias of promoting more gods for his own monetary benefit. “When once you see / the glint of wine shining at the feasts of women, / then you may be sure the festival is rotten” (895). Pentheus increasingly reveals that he suspects the Bacchic rituals to amount basically to a sexual orgy.

Tiresias praises Dionysus for

inventing liquid wine
as his gift to man. For filled with that good gift,
suffering mankind forgets its grief; from it
comes sleep; with it oblivion of the troubles
of the day. There is no other medicine
for misery. And when we pour libations
to the gods, we pour the god of wine himself….

But Pentheus is a “Reckless fool” (897).

A reference to Actaeon having been torn apart by his dogs for boasting about being a better hunter than Artemis (136) does not conform with the usual story, especially the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Actaeon’s seeing the goddess naked is overtly pronounced as having been accidental.

A disguised Dionysus is bound and led before Pentheus. The scene helps explain why Christianity found acceptance more easily in Greek culture than in others. “Twice-born” Dionysus, son of god Zeus, behaves passively: “he didn’t turn and run from us, but surrendered his hands willingly” (138). Pentheus questions him, commenting on his physical attractiveness. Pentheus acts paranoid, thinking Dionysus is mocking him. The god remarks, “You do not know what your life is, or what you do, or who you are” (140). The enraged Pentheus has Dionysus’ luxurious hair cuts off, despite Dionysus stating, “My hair is holy. / My curls belong to god” (902). Pentheus has him imprisoned in a dark stable. Immediately, thunder, lightning, earthquakes level Pentheus’ palace. Dionysus reports that when Pentheus tried to bind him, Pentheus found instead a bull. Pentheus enters and has a fit. A messenger brings news of the Maenads, and Pentheus decides to send the army after them. Yet, somehow Dionysus persuades Pentheus instead to spy on the Maenads — a forbidden sight — by adopting a female disguise: “If they knew you were a man, they would kill you instantly” (913). Pentheus returns in drag, out of his mind (apparently a necessary condition for him to agree to this disguise), waving a thyrsus. He still rants about the orgy he assumes takes place: “there they lie now, I fancy, like mating birds in the bushes, snuggling together in the joyous nets of love!” (153).

After a tense choral song, a messenger reports the death of Pentheus. When he and Dionysus had gone to view the “shameless orgies” of the Maenads, Pentheus could not see well, so Dionysus made a pine tree bend down. Pentheus climbed on and went up “to get a clear view of their shameful behaviour” (156). Agavê spotted an intruder and commanded the Maenads to tear down the tree. Pentheus plunged downwards and, despite his pleading, the Maenads, especially his mother and aunts, tore him limb from limb; others played ball with scraps of his flesh (922).

Agavê enters with Pentheus’ head stuck on her thyrsus, proud of her kill — a mountain lion, she thinks. Cadmus and others carry various pieces of his body back on a stretcher. Agavê is gradually brought back to her senses and slowly realizes the horrible truth. The surviving text of the play is incomplete or corrupted, but Dionysus enters triumphant and commands that Cadmus and his daughter live in exile (although Cadmus and his wife Harmonia will end relatively well as harmless snakes). Euripides ends the play with a formulaic chorus (essentially: it’s a funny world, but what are you gonna do?) he uses also for Medea, Alcestis, and Helen.

Works Cited

Euripides. The Bacchae. Trans. William Arrowsmith. Literature of the Western World. Volume 1. 3rd ed. by Brian Wilke and James Hurt. NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992. 886-933.

Euripides. The Bacchae. Trans. John Davie. The Bacchae and Other Plays. NY: Penguin Books, 2005. 119-165, 293-313.

Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.


Orpheus: Greek Plays