Episode 34: The Traditions of Our Forefathers

Euripides’ The Bacchae, one of the darkest and bloodiest works of Ancient Greek tragedy, is about the spread of cult religions during the late Peloponnesian War.

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Euripides’ The Bacchae

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 34: The Traditions of Our Forefathers. This show is on Euripides’ play The Bacchae, first performed in the city of Athens in 405 BCE, about a year after the playwright’s death. The Bacchae is often proclaimed Euripides’ masterpiece. It is the eighth and final work of Ancient Greek tragedy we’ll cover, and probably the darkest and most enigmatic of all of them. Euripides has long been understood as the black sheep of Ancient Greek Theater. Athenians appreciated his work enough to repeatedly let him compete alongside the less controversial and more orthodox Sophocles, but only very rarely awarded him first prize. There are many reasons that this might have been the case. But in the pages of Euripides’ plays that have come down to us from antiquity, we see more chaos, more lack of human agency, and more religious heterodoxy than in the pages of either Aeschylus or Sophocles.1 Euripides asked questions, and said things, and depicted situations that were evidently too bleak, and too controversial, for mainstream Athenian society. To begin the story of The Bacchae, very likely the last play that Euripides ever wrote, we need to talk about its central character. This central character is an Ancient Greek god. He may be familiar to you. You’ve probably heard of him, and seen a painting of him. He was one of the oldest Greek deities – possibly worshipped even before Zeus himself. Let’s talk about how old.

A thousand years before Euripides lived, and far away on the other side of Greece – in the southwestern Peloponnese, there was a settlement that we call Pylos. Before the Bronze Age Collapse of the 1100s BCE, the Peloponnese was ringed with coastal civilizations that we call Mycenaean – this era of Greek history came long before the famous democratic period of Classical Athens. Homer calls it “sandy Pylos” or “rocky Pylos,” and Odysseus’ son travels there in the Odyssey. In this city, archaeologists discovered a tablet written in an ancient Mycenaean script that we call Linear B. And on this tablet were the syllables di-wo-nu-so-jo.2 Now, Linear B tablets frequently mention gods that were extinct by the lifetime of Euripides – Zeus, Hera and Poseidon appear together with strange names like Manasa and Drimios.3 But the name di-wo-nu-so-jo, found at Pylos – this god was not at all extinct during the spring of 405 BCE, in the city of Athens. In fact, the entire city was gathered in his honor in the theater on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis. His name was not, by 405 BCE, di-wo-nu-so-jo. It was Dionysus.

The Many Dimensions of Dionysus

Recognizable variants of the name Dionysus are found throughout the pre-classical world – in Knossos on the island of Crete, and other city-states of late-Bronze Age Mycenaean Greece. Dionysus was an old god – in the archaeological record far older than Yahweh in neighboring Canaan. And in order to understand Euripides’ most critically regarded play, we need to know a bit more about di-wo-nu-so-jo, later known as Dionysus.

Linear B Musée archéologique de Mycènes

A Mycenaean Linear B tablet. The decipherment of this Bronze Age script has demonstrated how old, dynamic, and multifarious the world of Greco-Roman polytheism was. Photo by Gautier Poupeau.

Dionysus is, again, the central character in Euripides’ The Bacchae. You probably know that Dionysus was the god of wine. He’s come up many times in this podcast, if you’ve caught the earlier episodes, you might remember that he’s the patron god of the city of Thebes. The Bacchae takes place in the city of Thebes. You might also remember that Dionysus was the patron god of the main springtime theater festival of Ancient Athens – the one called the City Dionysia, named, obviously, after Dionysus. A handful of episodes ago, we talked about how there were parades that kicked off the City Dionysia festival, and that the second of these was called the Comus – named after the cupbearer to Dionysus – and that the Comus involved binge drinking and all sorts of springtime revelry.

Now, all of that sounds pretty benign. The god of wine likes to celebrate and have fun. When you first meet the ancient Greek pantheon, it can seem deceptively straightforward. There’s the lightning guy, the ocean guy, the jealous wife woman, and the harvest girl, and that kind of thing – each deity has his or her own central attribute and tagline, and they go about hurling thunder, or controlling the tides, or bringing the wheat and barley, and all that. But in reality, Ancient Greek polytheism is a religious tradition that stretched thousands of years – from Bronze Age tablets on the island of Crete, all the way down to early Middle Ages, when Christianity subsumed the Eastern Roman Empire. Because of its enormous lifespan and geographical distribution, the Olympian pantheon of ancient Greece was not a static group of twelve stalwarts who stood their ground for thousands of years doing the same thing. You can think of it this way. Christianity has hundreds of branches, though it only has one god. Imagine if Christianity had dozens of Gods, and demigods – and certain regions particularly favored one god, or one variation of one god, while only paying lip service to others – and – that these regions didn’t frequently communicate with one another. You’d have a lot of Christs, a lot of Yahwehs, a lot of Marys, a lot of Revelations, and on and on. This was what happened with Ancient Greek religion. Ancient Greek archaeological sites are often like giant merry-go-rounds – you’re likely to see a Hera, or an Apollo, for instance, but dozens of other figures are likely to show up based on how where the wheel has stopped turning, often strange figures whose names who have been lost for thousands of years.

So like all figures in the Ancient Greek pantheon – Dionysus has his tagline – the god of wine. Artists – the most famous being Caravaggio and Velazquez – artists depict Dionysus as a youth, scantily clad, sallow in complexion and with a dissipated face, while others depict him as a little cherub or chubby boy slurping wine. And this is how he’s come down to us – the celestial purveyor of alcohol, the fat heavenly underachiever you worship at parties and festivals, the harmless tubby god of drunks and ne’er do wells.

But Dionysus has some variations – some dark and violent variations that are keys to Euripides’ play The Bacchae. Dionysus wasn’t just the god of wine. He was also the god of madness – of rituals that led to temporary insanity and ecstasy – not uncommonly nocturnal rituals that took place beyond the bounds of city walls. Dionysus has many nicknames – throughout much of The Bacchae he’s called “the roaring one,” an epithet that speaks of his animal side, as though beneath the veneer of the boyish god of wine there is an old monster waiting to tear its way free and live without the constraints of civilization. Dionysus was frequently described as having horns, and could supposedly take the form of a lion, or a bull, shedding aside his human exterior in an instant. And in the archaeological record the name Dionysos Omestes exists, which means “Dionysus the eater of raw flesh,” suggesting the kinds of practices known to occur in cult rituals devoted to the god of wine.

Dionysus may have been the god of intoxication, but as the god of intoxication Dionysus was also lord of many things associated with intoxication – lunacy, fertility and orgiastic coupling, and above all of these, transmutation – the change of grapes into wine, and equally, the transformation of a sober citizen of a polis into a raving fire dancer or fanatic making blood sacrifices beneath the moon and trees. Dionysus, to the Greeks of Euripides’ time, could take a nice, upright citizen of a polis and put him in the throes of wild ecstasy and madness, eating the raw flesh of animals in an obscure cave or dark fire pit, far beyond the torchlight of the city assembly or marketplace. And Dionysus could take a seemly, rational woman, and make her into one of the Bacchae, or female priests of the God of wine, dancing and cavorting endlessly under the influence of his maddening spell. That name, by the way, is important, since it’s the name of the play we’re about to spend some time with. So Euripides’ play The Bacchae, again first produced in Athens in the year 405 BCE, has for its main character the god of wine, and the play is named after the female zealots who worshipped Dionysus – women who actually existed and attended ritual celebrations of the god of wine in Euripides’ lifetime.

Let’s talk about the main idea of this episode. The main idea of this episode is in its title: Episode 34: The Traditions of Our Forefathers. The Bacchae, you will find over the next hour or so, is a play about the power of religion. It’s a play about religion’s capacity to form and influence individuals regardless of their state and even familial allegiances. It’s a play about how religion can cause both reverence and piety, as well as violence and depravity. In Euripides’ time, political systems and regional alliances were shifting. The Bacchae came out at during the final months of the Peloponnesian War, when all of Greece was demolished by almost thirty years of conflict. But amidst all of this tumult, Euripides knew, certain religious traditions were unfathomably old, and rooted deeply into ancient, fire hardened clay tablets just as much as they were embedded in human culture and customs. And so Euripides’ final, and most shocking play, as fleets of ships sunk in the Aegean and mass executions were carried out inside the walls of captured cities, Euripides’ final play asks us – is religion a force that can help bring people together – is it a deeply rooted set of customs that supercede our current wars and technologies and state systems? Or is religion a force of disintegration, causing us to form blocs and cults and only deepening the differences that we feel we have from one another? Euripides doesn’t have the answer to this riddle. But in the way he asks the question, he makes The Bacchae one of the greatest plays ever written. [music]

The Legendary Kings of Thebes

So we’ve talked about Dionysus, and we now know he’s an old god, and that in addition to being the god of wine, he was the god of ecstasy, and madness, and that his ritual celebrations involved varying degrees of sex and violence. And we talked about the core of Euripides’ play The Bacchae is about the huge and volatile power that religions have over us – particularly ancient religious traditions whose origins lie buried in long lost archives. There’s just one more thing we need to do before we start The Bacchae, and that’s talk about the events leading up to the opening moments of the play. Let’s start with the play’s setting – the city of Thebes.

Cadmus killing the Dragon by Francesco Zuccarelli

Francesco Zuccarelli’s Cadmus Killing the Dragon (1765). Thebes, like Athens, Corinth, and many other Ancient Greek city states, had many legends about its inception.

There are many stories about the city of Thebes in Ancient Greek tragedy. This city, about 32 miles or 50 kilometers northwest of Athens, was one of Athens’ rivals, and frequently a foe in the Peloponnesian War, and so the Athenians set many plays – particularly dark, and turbulent plays – in Thebes. Thebes was the city of Oedipus and Jocasta, and of their feuding sons Polynices and Eteocles, and their daughters, poor, pragmatic Ismene and rigid, heroic, doomed Antigone. But before any of these figures of Greek legend – before the riddle of the Sphinx and the grim prophecy voiced against Oedipus at birth – before any of this, an earlier generation lived in Thebes. And while the story of Oedipus and his progeny is a gloomy and violent one, the story of the generation of Oedipus’ great, great, great grandfather is just as bloody and harrowing.

Thebes was founded by a legendary dragonslayer. His name was Cadmus, and by the time The Bacchae begins, Cadmus is old. Cadmus already has many children, and has passed kingship down to his grandson. From beginning to end, the story that’s going to fill the next hour is about a fierce feud between two of Cadmus’ grandsons. One of these two grandsons has been made king. His name is Pentheus. Pentheus, the grandson of Cadmus, is young, but at the same time he’s austere and set in his ways. Pentheus, the recently appointed king of Thebes, has little patience for religious sentiment, or the worship of powerful gods. But regal young Pentheus doesn’t know something. What Pentheus doesn’t know is that his cousin is the god Dionysus. And The Bacchae is about a fierce, and eventually very bloody disagreement between hard, skeptical King Pentheus, and Dionysus, the god of wine, and fertility; ecstasy and transmutation. Pentheus versus Dionysus. A lot of the time authors play out ideological disputes in their works by having one character embody an idea and another character embody another idea, and in The Bacchae this is certainly the case, with the chilly religious skepticism of young king Pentheus on one side, and the primal, wine guzzling, hard partying religiously orthodox Dionysus on the other.

The Tragedy of Semele and the Birth of Dionysus

Jupiter and Semele by Pietro della Vecchia

Pietro della Vecchia’s Jupiter and Semele (17th century). The story of Dionysus’ virgin birth and subsequent soteriological relationship with mankind, which became increasingly widespread during the tumultuous Hellenistic period, was an important forerunner to Christianity.

Now, Euripides’ The Bacchae is about this central conflict, but it’s also about Dionysus’ birth. Let’s talk about this. Dionysus’ birth story is – uh – memorable. When we meet Dionysus in The Bacchae in a minute, you will see that he is angry. All kinds of wrong have been done to the young god Dionysus. His mother was called Semele. Dionysus’ mother Semele was the daughter of Cadmus, founding King of Thebes. Now, Zeus, who has sex with every single vertebrate he can find, had sex with Semele. Poor Semele became pregnant, and in one of Greek mythology’s most common tropes, jealous Hera noticed that her divine husband had inseminated yet another hapless mortal, and not-at-all logically, blamed the poor girl her husband had raped, rather than neutering her husband, which the entire universe would have applauded. Now, anyway, Zeus had inseminated the poor mortal Theban princess Semele while in disguise, and Hera visited Semele in disguise, telling the unlucky mortal girl that Semele’s lover had been a divine being. Semele, naturally curious about how she’d become pregnant, asked Zeus to swear that he’d do something for her, and this bearded patriarch of the gods consented, swearing by one of the rivers of Hades. So Semele asked him to reveal himself to her as he actually was. Zeus stammered – this – really wasn’t a very good idea – uh maybe he could give her a nice bag of popcorn, or something – but, no, Semele insisted, and Zeus had to comply. And when he revealed himself to Semele in his true form, she burst into lightning and fire, and died.

Now, baby Dionysus, at that point still a fetus, evidently survived this little cosmic demolition, and Zeus picked up the baby and – get ready for weirdness – sewed the fetal Dionysus either up into his thigh, or his scrotum, until the baby was ready to be born. Dionysus then came into being, born from his father’s thigh or testicles, and headed out to the east to begin his fun, wild life as the god of wine, madness and orgies. I guess when you’re born from someone’s balls you’re probably not going to be the god of wisdom or chastity – the – uh – booze and group sex thing just seems to fit well. Anyway, in spite of Dionysus’ miraculous and – odd – birth, back in Thebes, things weren’t going so well. The poor mortal Theban princess Semele had three sisters, and they began spreading scurrilous rumors about her. Semele hadn’t actually been bedded by a God, they said. No, no. It had been a mere mortal – an ignominious sexual act – and Semele was a despicable, fallen woman. Semele’s sisters said that Semele had burst into fire as punishment for lying about her pregnancy. One of these sisters – and remember that these are all daughters of Cadmus, founder of Thebes – one of poor Semele’s sisters was the mother of Pentheus, the heir to the throne. And so the central conflict in the play – cold, rational king Pentheus versus the god of carousing Dionysus – this central conflict was preceded by an earlier conflict, when Pentheus’ rather cruel mother accused Dionysus’ deceased mother of harlotry.

So that’s a fair bit of back story, I know. But now, actually, Euripides’ play The Bacchae should be a piece of cake for you. Just remember that its central story is a violent feud between Dionysus, who’s just returned to Thebes, and his cousin Pentheus, the coldly rationalist Theban king whose mother has slandered Dionysus’ mother.

I’m quoting from time to time from a volume called The Bacchae and Other Plays, published by Penguin in 2005. It was translated by John Davie, and has an introduction and notes by Richard Rutherford. And wow – folks, you’re going to love this. I won’t say I saved the best work of Greek tragedy for last – I love all of the ones I chose for the podcast, but holy smokes, The Bacchae is one hell of a story. And, exciting transition music, begin!

Opening: The Soliloquy of Dionysus

Just outside the royal compound at Thebes, there stood a tomb. Smoke wafted out of it, blowing slowly back into the heart of the city, and around this tomb, ivy clung to an old fence. It was quiet there, at first – only the sound of birds overhead along with the occasional crackle from the tomb fire fell over the outskirts of the palace grounds. A drama had already unfolded, and a new one was beginning.

A man appeared near the tomb. He might have been young, or old – it was impossible to tell – but in the modulations of his voice, and the slow movement of his hands, there was something green and vinous, like the ivy twining through the nearby fence palings and already touching the base of the new tomb.

“Newly arrived in this land of Thebes,” said the stranger, “I am Dionysus, son of Zeus.”4 The tomb, Dionysus said, was the tomb of his mother, Semele, the deceased princess of Thebes. Semele had been seduced by the great god Zeus, and then died. And in memoriam, Dionysus had already sent beautiful tendrils of vines around his dead mother’s tomb in a wreath, so that the poor departed princess of Thebes would be remembered.

Dionysus said that he was on the verge of completing a great journey. He had been in the golden fields of western Anatolia, and in the mountainous meadows of central Asia Minor. He’d seen the bright steppes of Persia, and the buttressed cities of India. He’d seen the bleak high country of the Medes, and the gorgeous wealth of Arabia, and everywhere he’d gone, whether there were Greeks or barbarians, Dionysus said he left people dancing with passion and ecstasy, people who would worship him long after his departure.

He had only recently come back to Greece, he said. And he’d come for good reason. Court women of the city of Thebes – in fact the very sisters of his beloved mother Semele – these princesses had said that their sister’s pregnancy was not due to any deity. Semele’s sisters said that Dionysus’ poor mother had lost her virginity to some mortal, that the story of divine impregnation was all false, and that Dionysus himself was nothing more than a bastard. These sisters said Semele had died not due to having witnessed the true for of Zeus, but as punishment for falsehood. Dionysus had heard all of this, and he was already making them pay.

Dionysus and the Maenads

Dionysus said he’d struck at the heart of Thebes by driving its women into madness. “First,” he said, “I have made this city of Thebes resound to women’s cries, dressing them in fawnskins and putting the thyrsus in their hands, my ivy-bound spear” (128). This thyrsus, which is surprisingly important to The Bacchae was a staff, made of a stalk of fennel woven over with ivy and topped with a pine cone – the emblem of Dionysus – an emblem of growing vines, of pulsing life, and gushing seeds. The sisters of Dionysus’ Semele, said Dionysus, had been driven mad as they clutched their thyrsus staffs. Dionysus said that all the womenfolk of Thebes, including the libelous princesses, “have the mountain as their home and their wits have deserted them. . .they sit beneath green firs, on rocks open to the sky” (129).

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Youth of Bacchus. While modern depictions of Dionysus tend to show him as a fun-loving purveyor of wine, to the ancient Greco-Roman world Dionysus had a dark, violent side, and an increasingly central role in the Hellenistic pantheon.

Now, driving the Theban women into a frenzy was only part of Dionysus’ payback. His grandfather, Cadmus, was the founder of Thebes, and its most prominent citizen in times of legend. And Cadmus had another grandson – a grandson named Pentheus. Pentheus, the son of one of the princesses who had maligned poor Semele, had just been awarded with leadership over all of Thebes. But, impiously, and sacrilegiously, King Pentheus had entirely ignored the god Dionysus. The young new king Pentheus offered Dionysus no sacrifices, and said no prayers to him. And so, Dionysus said, soon he would reveal his identity to the city of Thebes. If he weren’t welcomed, said Dionysus, he’d lead his frenzied women, the Bacchae, or his maenads, into battle against them.

These Bacchae, or maenads, or ecstatic worshippers of Dionysus, began to file in, and in the remainder of this play these women will serve as the chorus – hence the fact that the play is named after them. The maenad women of the chorus, or Bacchae, beat their drums and thronged around the walls of the palace. They sang of Dionysus as the Roaring One – because their lord could take the form of a lion or bull. They told of how Dionysus had been born prematurely from the womb of his dead mother, and Zeus had sewn the baby up in his body, and when the baby was ready to be born, Zeus “gave birth to a god with bull’s horns and crowned him with a garland of serpents” (130). Having sung of their lord’s birth, the maenad women of the chorus voiced a prayer. They told the Theban citizens to twine ivy in their hair, along with oak leaves and pine needles – to wear animal skins, because up in the mountains people were dancing to Dionysus. They said that up in the mountainous areas where Dionysus was worshipped, milk wine and honey flowed freely, and the balm of incense hung in the trees.

As the chorus fell into silence, an old man shuffled onto stage. His name was Tiresias, and he was a prophet. You might remember Tiresias from the Sophocles plays Oedipus the King and Antigone. If you were writing a play in the 400s, and needed a prophet character, you used Tiresias. So, the prophet of Tiresias, himself dressed like a maenad, or worshipper of Dionysus, said he’d come to see the aged king Cadmus. Old king Cadmus, said the prophet Tiresias, knew why he had come. [music]

The Fervor of King Cadmus and the Prophet Tiresias

Old King Cadmus appeared from the Theban palace. And like Tiresias, Cadmus was dressed in the clothing of a Dionysus worshipper – wild garments, buckskins woven with ruffs of wool. Cadmus, just like the maenad women, clutched a thyrsus staff, and he said that the ecstatic worship of Dionysus had made him forget his age. The two old men said they’d dance to Dionysus, their hair bound with ivy. The kingdom had been entrusted to Cadmus’ grandson, Pentheus. There was no more need for governance, the old men thought. Old Cadmus and Tiresias felt that they could now show unrestrained, joyous piety to their god Dionysus. Young king Pentheus could do what he wanted, but, to the retired king Cadmus and the prophet Tiresias, the sacredness of religious traditions would never bow to rationalism.

“We do not chop logic,” said Tiresias, “when speaking of divinity. The traditions of our forefathers that we have inherited, as old as time, shall not be overthrown by any clever argument, though it be devised by the subtlest of wits” (132). Old, and young, the two venerable men agreed, regardless of standing, were all united in the worship of Dionysus – the dancing, the spontaneity, and the passion that the god demanded. But a moment later, a man arrived who felt very, very differently. [music]

The Castigations of King Pentheus

His name was Pentheus. Pentheus was the grandson of old Cadmus, and Pentheus had recently been appointed the King of Athens. Unlike his forefathers, and his mother, Pentheus was not a particularly religious person. He said he had heard that grotesque things were happening in Thebes. The women, he said, had been cavorting in the shady glens of mountains, and drinking wine, and sneaking off with men. It was, Pentheus summarized, all in the name of some novel deity called Dionysus, but as far as he, Pentheus, was concerned, the Theban women were serving Aphrodite, and acting on their lusts and basest impulses. Pentheus said he’d hunt them down and put an end to their unrestrained revelry.

As for Dionysus, said Pentheus – Pentheus had indeed heard that some conjurer had arrived from the east, flush with wine and seducing women into mysterious rites. But this man was no son of Zeus. Pentheus vowed to behead, or to lynch this interloper. Pentheus groused and harangued on Dionysus and the disintegrating social order of Thebes, and then, suddenly, King Pentheus saw the old king, Cadmus, and the prophet, Tiresias. Pentheus was shocked to witness such respectable men dressed in the garments of the cult of Dionysus, wearing deerskins, and ruffs of wool, and ivy.

The newly appointed king Pentheus castigated his grandfather Cadmus, and the prophet Tiresias. What, he said, were these old men doing practicing wild rites to a false god? Pentheus said if they weren’t so old, he’d punish them with all the other worshippers of Dionysus.

Before either of the old men could reply, the leader of the chorus interjected. Pentheus, the chorus leader said – Pentheus was the one guilty of sacrilege. And then, in a long speech, the prophet Tiresias explained the indubitable importance of Dionysus.
This new god whom you mock [, said Tiresias,] will achieve a greatness I cannot describe throughout Greece. Men enjoy two great blessings, young man: firstly, the goddess Demeter, the Earth – call her by whichever name you will – who sustains mankind by means of dry foods; then there is he who came afterwards, Semele’s son, who invented the liquid draught of the grape to match her gift and introduced it to mortals. This it is that puts an end to the sorrows of wretched men, when they get their fill of the flowing vine, this that confers sleep on them and forgetfulness of daily troubles. There is no other antidote to suffering. He, a god himself, is poured out in honour of the gods, so that he is the cause of man’s blessings. (134)
Tiresias elaborated further. Zeus, he said, had indeed delivered Dionysus from his thigh. Dionysus, and wine, filled people with sudden and intense visions, with panics and passions. And yet Dionysus wasn’t simply an arch-seducer of women. The chorus leader told stern young King Pentheus that women could full well perform the rites of Dionysus and be chaste and honest. Thus, the chorus leader said, the former king Cadmus would bow to this new, powerful, dynamic god, and Pentheus would be wise to do the same. And Cadmus reached forward with a crown of ivy, preparing to place it on the head of King Pentheus.

Pentheus, however, was disgusted. He drew back. He told them he didn’t want any part of their idiocy. And Pentheus ordered his men to find this so-called Dionysus, to tie him up and bring him to Thebes to be stoned to death. With this proclamation, Pentheus stormed off.

Pentheus Confronts the Disguised Dionysus

Tiresias was incredulous at the violent blasphemy of young King Pentheus. The two old men promised to hold one another up and continue to revere Dionysus. And once they’d gone slowly off together, the chorus of maenad women began another song. They also balked at the unholy words of harsh young King Pentheus. The women reeled at the notion that anyone could hate Dionysus, when Dionysus’ role was “to make men dance together as one, to rejoice at the sound of the flute, and to put an end to care, when the liquid gleam of the grape enters the feasts of the gods and in the ivy-wreathed feasts of men the wine-bowl casts its veil of sleep over them” (137). The maenad women of the chorus said that Dionysus loved feasts, and peace – that wine brought joy to the rich and poor, and that when all of humanity bowed to a god, one had to respect the wishes of his fellow people.

Christie Painter - Red-Figure Bell Krater - Walters 4874 - Detail A

A red figure bell crater, dated to about 440 BCE, showing Dionysus holding a thyrsis staff (center), a maenad (left) and a satyr (right).

Once the chorus song was over, a group of Theban soldiers arrived. And with them was Dionysus, though Dionysus was disguised in the form of a handsome youth. Dionysus had been captured at King Pentheus’ orders, and Dionysus’ arms had been tied behind him. The captive god was brought to face King Pentheus, who emerged from the palace. Along with the captive Dionysus, the soldiers brought peculiar news. The stranger from the east that they had captured had surrendered without a fight, politely presenting his arms to be bound. And upon his capture, miraculously, all of the female Dionysus worshippers whom Pentheus had locked up were suddenly freed – their manacles had unclasped, and their chains had fallen off, and they’d gone again to the woods in the highlands to dance and celebrate.

But Pentheus was unmoved by this miracle. He studied the captive stranger, and said that the man was indeed handsome. Dionysus was asked about his background. Now, remember here that at this moment, Dionysus is pretending to just be some handsome young man. So, the disguised Dionysus said that he’d been brought up in the east – and that Dionysus himself had initiated him in the secret rites of wine, and dancing, and song. Pentheus wanted to know about these rites – why, after all, was Thebes becoming infected with this plague of intoxicated fervor? But Dionysus said the rites were secret. Everyone, the god said, all the countries beyond Greece, were practicing them. The two men argued intensely, Dionysus always serene and unperturbed – and one step ahead of Pentheus’ angry dogmatism, until Dionysus concluded, “You do not know what your life is, or what you do, or who you are” (140). Now, Pentheus could not bear this insult, and ordered the infuriatingly serene youth away to a dark stable, resolving to sell his female followers into slavery or make them his own servants. Dionysus nodded. “I will go,” he said, “for I do not have to suffer what is not to be. Be sure, however, that this insolence of yours will be punished by Dionysus, whose existence you deny. When you wrong me, you are leading him off to prison” (141).

Pentheus – uh – didn’t pick up on this or other not-too-subtle clues that the disguised Dionysus offered him. You’d think maybe Pentheus would note that the female priestesses of Dionysus had spontaneously been magically freed when the handsome and unworldly easterner had been brought in. Perhaps Pentheus might say, “You know, stranger, you seem an awfully lot like a deity yourself – how about we go in the palace and have some cookies together, rather than me rampantly disrespecting you in front of everyone?” But this, alas, did not happen. The Theban king was obstinate and fierce in his anger, and the disguised young god was led off to the dark stalls where the horses were kept. [music]

The Violence of the Maenads

The chorus sung an interlude – asking the central river of Thebes and the citizens of the city why they would even in part reject the coming of Dionysus. Yet suddenly – and this by the way is structurally unusual in ancient Greek tragedy – suddenly the voice of Dionysus was heard over the stage. He told the maenads of the chorus he was present in Thebes, and they were ecstatic to know that their god was there on the scene. Then, the maenad women prophesied doom for King Pentheus. And presently, doom seemed to come. The palace shook – the stone lintels suspended above doorways rattled, and lighting exploded over the grave of Dionysus’ mother Semele, and then, suddenly, Dionysus appeared. He was still disguised as a youth, but this time, he appeared from the palace, and not the dark stables.

Dionysus’ followers asked the young man – remember he’s still disguised as a mortal – so Dionysus’ followers asked the young man how he had managed to escape, and the god offered them an amusing story. As Pentheus had tried to bind him, he said, he’d deluded the king into trying to tie up a bull. And then Dionysus had begun the fire on his mother’s tomb, and the earthquake, and created a phantom in the courtyard that Pentheus had tried to stab. In the end, Dionysus had rocked and cracked the structure of Pentheus’ palace, and left him exhausted.

Just as the disguised Dionysus offered this explanation, out of the palace appeared Pentheus, in a state of rage and consternation. Pentheus demanded to know how the strange eastern youth had escaped, and Dionysus told him that he’d had help from – of course – Dionysus. Just then, a messenger arrived from the Cithaeron mountains to the northwest. Now remember, messengers in Ancient Greek tragedy are really important – because scenes almost never change, it’s up to messengers to deliver often lengthy accounts of what’s happened elsewhere.

So this recently arrived messenger from the high country to the northwest began his story. He said that the maenads had sped forth from Thebes, and that Pentheus’ mother, Agave, was one of them. The messenger was a mountain herdsman, and said he’d seen maenads sleeping peacefully in a field. The women had awakened, then, rubbing their eyes and tightening their dappled fawnskins and hides together with bands made of snakes – snakes that licked the women’s cheeks.

In some of the women’s arms were baby deer and wolf cubs, and all women who could do so nursed these critters with milk from their breasts. A woman struck her thyrsus staff against a rock and water splashed out of it – in another place, a staff made wine gush out of the ground. The messenger continued his story. He said that he and the other villagers and herdsmen had sought to capture Agave – again Pentheus’ mother – and bring her back to Thebes. So the herdsmen hid in a bank of leafy bushes, and prepared to spring. When they ambushed the maenads, though, things went badly wrong.

Everything started moving. All the wild animals, and leaves and even the mountain began to shudder and shake, and the maenads went into a violent frenzy. The maenads went after a herd of cattle, and things became gruesome.
“One of them [the herdsman said] you might have seen using her hands to wrench asunder a young heifer with swollen udders – how the creature bellowed! Others were rending and tearing apart full-grown cows. You might have seen ribs or cloven hooves flung everywhere; and bloodstained pieces hung dripping from the pine-branches. Bulls that had been proud creatures before, with anger rising in their horns, were wrestled to the ground, dragged down by the countless hands of young women. They were stripped of the flesh they wore faster than you could have closed those royal eyes of yours” (146-7).
And that is again the John Davie translation, published by Penguin in a volume called The Bacchae and Other Plays in 2005, with an introduction and notes by Richard Rutherford. After feasting on the raw flesh of the herd of cattle, the maenads hurried down into a village. There, they stole children. Their hair burned, but it did not singe them. The maenads fought off a defensive line of men and then, with their new initiates, sped back up into the mountains. Once they reached their spring of wine, the herdsman said, “they washed off the blood, while snakes licked clean the gory stains from their cheeks” (147). [music]

Dionysus Convinces Pentheus to Spy on the Maenads

To Pentheus, the implications of the messenger’s dire story were clear. Thebes was going to have to go to war. He told his shield bearers, and his cavalrymen, and his archers that it was time to march against the maenad women. Women, he said, ought not to behave in such a fashion.

And then Dionysus began to execute his plot – a plot to cause the downfall of King Pentheus. The disguised Dionysus warned Pentheus that Pentheus should do otherwise, for engaging the maenads in combat would bring the Theban army to a bloody end. So Pentheus and Dionysus, after some back and forth, came up with a compromise. Pentheus wanted to see these maenads for himself. And Dionysus said this was easily possible – but Pentheus would need to be disguised as a woman – for the maenads did not take kindly to men spying on them. Pentheus, after some further debate, consented. He would let the strange eastern youth dress him, and then escort him to see the maenads in their own element. Pentheus went into the palace.

And then the disguised Dionysus and offered the chorus a speech. Pentheus, he said, would go to the maenads and be killed, as was fitting. Only, to make the stern king more vulnerable, Pentheus would be made to go slightly mad, and thus clad as a woman, and in a state of insanity, Pentheus would be led through Thebes. The Thebans would see their sacrilegious leader, cowed and ridiculous, being led to his execution, and thereafter there would be no doubt as to the power, and the primacy, of Dionysus. And with these words, Dionysus and Pentheus went into the palace, to prepare Pentheus.[music]

The Madness of King Pentheus

With Dionysus and Pentheus in the palace, the chorus of maenad women sung of how they wished they could join their brethren in the forest. Tradition, they said, was all that counted – bowing to ancestral customs and worshipping the gods was the best thing that one could do. “It is no great expense,” they said, “to accept that power lies with the divine – whatever the divine may be – and that what has become accepted through long ages is everlasting and grounded in nature” (151). As the chorus finished their song, Dionysus came out of the palace with Pentheus.

The god asked Pentheus to stand before him, and something was changed in the Theban king beyond just his clothes. Pentheus had lost his senses. The Theban king was seeing double, and he exclaimed that the disguised Dionysus was no youth at all, but instead a great bull. Pentheus had Dionysus adjust a lock of his hair, and then asked about the hem of his dress, and how to hold his thyrsus staff. In the midst of his madness and insensibility, Pentheus revealed how badly he wanted to see these maenads – to hide and watch their sensual rites. Dionysus spoke to Pentheus patiently, telling the muddled king that he would have all of his desires satisfied, and, in asides to the audience, foretelling that the horror of Pentheus’ looming death would serve as an example to all mortals. And with these words, Dionysus led Pentheus off stage, to the high country, and the maenads, where he would face his death. [music]

Grisly Murder in the Mountains

In the absence of Pentheus and Dionysus, the chorus of maenads sung again. They hoped that Pentheus’ mother Agave would see him and bear down on him. The Theban king, they said, had committed a sin in questioning orthodoxy. Returning to a theme from their previous song, they emphasized that accepting divine decrees without questioning was the key to happiness. After more sentiments for this sort, and more violent curses laid on the head of the hapless King Pentheus, the chorus was silent. And a messenger appeared onstage to tell of what had happened up in the dark glades of the mountains.

The messenger was an attendant of King Pentheus. He faced the chorus of maenad women, and began his story. Pentheus, he said, had been killed. The chorus responded with such ecstatic delight that the messenger was startled, and cautioned them against rejoicing in an act of murder. Then, he began the detailed part of his tale.

The messenger said he’d gone with Pentheus out through the farmland and crossed a river. They went up into the foothills of the northwestern mountains, and in a grassy glade, they looked out over a deep ravine, a gorge where a broad stream was overhung with the shadows of pine trees. There, the messenger saw the maenads – doing nothing out of the ordinary, really – just mending a staff or two, and singing songs. Pentheus wanted a better view, and so the disguised Dionysus had bent a pine tree down, down, and down into an impossible circular arc, and seated the king on top of it. Then Dionysus sent the king high into the treetops, thunderously announcing to the maenads in the ravine below that their persecutor and tormentor now lay before them, and that it was time to punish him. A terrifying silence followed – even the leaves stilled.

Pompeii - Casa dei Vettii - Pentheus

Pentheus being dismembered by the maenads. Roman fresco from the Casa dei Vettii in Pompeii.

And then the maenads came for him. They flung stones at him, and hurled their wooden staffs, but their projectiles didn’t make it to the treetops. The maenads cut furiously at the pine’s roots, but still it stood. But finally, the women stood in a cluster and uprooted the tree with their bare hands. Pentheus fell into the throng of maenads. His mother, Agave, was the first to attack him. Pentheus desperately removed his disguise so that his mother could see his face, but she showed no signs of recognizing him. In fact, the messenger said, “Agave, foaming at the mouth and rolling distorted eyes, her senses gone, was in the grip of Bacchus and deaf to his entreaties. She grabbed his left arm below the elbow, set her foot against the doomed man’s ribs and tore out the shoulder, not by strength but by ease of hand that was the gift of the god” (157). Another maenad ripped off Pentheus’ other arm. The carnage intensified as Pentheus tried to muster enough breath to scream. The messenger saw a Maenad go by carrying an arm, and another with a foot – the king’s ribs had the skin ripped off of them, and the fervid worshippers of Dionysus tossed Pentheus’ flesh back and forth like children’s toys.

His body, afterward, lay everywhere in the wilderness. His head, the messenger said – Pentheus’ head was now impaled at the top of his mother’s thyrsus staff, and Agave was coming to Thebes. And the messenger, though he had seen the massacre committed in Dionysus’ name, nonetheless closed his story with a remark the chorus had already made. “To be virtuous in one’s life,” said the messenger, “and show the gods reverence is the noblest course; it is also, I think, the greatest wisdom a man can possess” (158). With that, the chorus was left alone. [music]

Agave Returns and Regains Her Lucidity

The chorus of maenad women held a celebration alongside the battered walls of the Theban palace. And into the frolic and singing came Pentheus’ mother Agave, bearing the severed head of Pentheus. She was greeted cordially enough by the chorus, and bragged that she had met a mountain lion cub and killed it. And then, holding the bloodied head aloft, she invited the women of Thebes to eat with her. Only this time, they recoiled. Agave said she was exultant – she and the maenads had embarked on a great hunt, and their prey had been far from ordinary. But the chorus bade Agave to show the city of Thebes the trophy of her kill. Agave announced it – they had taken the young mountain lion with no weapons – they’d torn him apart with their hands – where was her father Cadmus, said Agave? She wanted to show him the severed head of the mountain lion. And where was her son, Pentheus? Pentheus could mount the head of the mountain lion high on the city walls!

Just then, old Cadmus appeared. He had with him the various gory scraps that had been his grandson. He told of following the bloody trail through the wilderness, and how he’d heard his daughters were hurrying back to Thebes. Agave saw her father there and triumphantly told the old man that she and her sisters were fine daughters, indeed. She showed him the severed head that she believed to be the head of a mountain lion, telling him to take it, and prepare for a feast.

Cadmus immediately saw what had happened, and was devastated with sorrow. And yet at the same time he saw that the madness of Agave and the murder of Pentheus had both been a punishment from Dionysus – that the sacrifice had been fair, gasping “he has destroyed us, the god. . .justly but excessively” (160). Agave did not understand. She told her father Cadmus to come closer and see the fruits of her hunt. Cadmus asked her calm herself. He said to look up into the sky, and to take a moment. Agave did so, and her faculties of reason slowly seemed to return. And then Agave looked down and saw that she was holding her son’s head, and that it had been torn off. Cadmus told her that Agave and her sisters had committed the murder.

And Cadmus revealed something else. Agave and her sisters, who had disrespected their sister Semele and her divine son Dionysus – these impious sisters had been driven into a frenzy. Everything that had happened had been orchestrated by Dionysus. Cadmus said that his beloved Agave had once been one of his chief sources of pride – she had, after all, more than anyone kept his palace and affairs in order. Disrespecting Dionysus and his mother Semele, however, had been a fatal error. “But now,” said old Cadmus, “it is sorrow for me and misery for you, pity for your mother and misery for her sisters. If there is anyone who holds deities in contempt, let him consider this man’s death and believe in the gods” (162).

Dionysus then appeared atop the palace, no longer in disguise. He said that Cadmus would be changed into a great serpent and lead barbarian forces in war against Greece. This was Cadmus’ punishment for not honoring Dionysus soon enough. Cadmus begged Dionysus to reconsider, but the god said, “Too late you came to know me; when you should have, you did not” (163). Cadmus pleaded with Dionysus, saying, “you come upon us with a hand too heavy. . .Gods should not be like mortals in temper” (163). Dionysus only said that these events had been decreed long ago by the will of Zeus.

And so the fates of the impious Thebans were decided. Cadmus was to be exiled to a barbarian land. And Agave and her sisters had to live with the horror of their murders. And, as Agave left the stage in one direction and Cadmus the other, the chorus voiced a final three cryptic, irresolute sentences. “Many,” they said, “are the forms taken by the plans of the gods and many the things they accomplish beyond men’s hopes. What men expect does not happen; for the unexpected heaven finds a way. And so it has turned out here today.” And that’s the end. [music]

The Ending of The Bacchae: A Pious Cautionary Tale?

People have different reactions to this ending. On one hand, all of The Bacchae is like a parable straight out of the Old Testament. A group of nonbelievers remain obstinate, and refuse to honor a deity. The deity prepares a gory and spectacular punishment for the nonbelievers, and the subsequent bloodbath is a lesson for anyone in future generations who dares to display religious dissent. The tale of Bacchus and Thebes is like the tale of Yahweh and the Pharaoh in Exodus, or the fantasies of infidel women and children being gutted and crushed in Isaiah and Jeremiah. In one sense, The Bacchaeis a religious allegory, pure and simple. Honor Dionysus, or suffer dire consequences. This seems to be the interpretation of Euripides’ brief choral song at the end – fate turns unexpectedly, and the gods are the ones who turn it.

It’s possible that there’s nothing more to The Bacchae than this. The play, after all, premiered at the festival of Dionysus, in the Theater of Dionysus, in a city in which there were cults to the god of wine and madness and ecstasy. Maybe The Bacchae is a highly orthodox cautionary tale that encourages us to worship our ancestral gods, abide by generations long conventions, and keep our heads down, or to otherwise face fire and dismemberment. Maybe it’s a conventional cautionary tale, and that’s why it won Euripides one of his few first prizes at that year’s theater festival. Maybe.

But – let’s consider the other side. In the play you just heard, Dionysus and his followers aren’t exactly kind, or orderly, or equitable. When people are getting torn limb from limb, and raw flesh is being gobbled down, and babies are being stolen, and wolf cubs are being suckled from the nipples of human females you have either the cover of a heavy metal album, or a theological hierarchy that looks a bit confused. It is, of course, the theological hierarchy of the god of wine and madness, so we might expect the theology of The Bacchae to look a bit riotous – maybe with some excessive drinking, some ill-advised hookups, table dancing, slaves spanking masters and some broken wine jugs and stuff. But instead, in The Bacchae, we have a central figure whose thirst for blood begins to seem totally out of step with his otherwise beneficent quest to spread a spirit of celebration and revelry throughout the known world.

So on one level, The Bacchae is an endorsement of traditional religions. Wise old Tiresias says, “The traditions of our forefathers that we have inherited, as old as time, shall not be overthrown by any clever argument, though it be devised by the subtlest of wits” (132). And also the chorus encourages yielding to inherited customs. “[A]cceptance,” they announce, “without protest of what the gods decide, and to abide by the mortal lot, means a life free of sorrow” (154). But beneath these surface sentiments lies the ugly truth of Dionysus’ lust for violence, a lust that even those who worship him observe. Pious Cadmus, who sees that his daughter has torn his grandson to pieces, tells Dionysus “you come upon us with a hand too heavy. . .Gods should not be like mortals in temper” (163). That one is a memorable line – it’s impossible to imagine a sentiment like that in the Pentateuch. Cadmus observes that Dionysus is behaving not like a farsighted god, but like a wrathful and jealous petty monarch. By the end of the play, then, there is some sense that practitioners of impiety have been smited. But there is also a sense that the smiting, in its gory totality, was vastly excessive in proportion to the crimes that warranted it.

Alright, so, we’ve heard the play. And we’ve talked about its two sides – how Euripides’ The Bacchae can be read as an endorsement of Dionysus, and also a story that’s wary of religious fervor and anthropomorphic gods. What we’re going to do now is to talk a bit more about history. We will talk about some Ancient Athenian religious traditions that would have certainly affected the way that Euripides’ original audience watched the world premiere of The Bacchae in 405 BCE. And we will talk about cult movements that, by the end of the 400s, were proliferating all over the Aegean world – cult movements involving Dionysus and other figures. At the end of this episode, once we’ve contextualized The Bacchae with its historical milieu, I am going to tell you something else about Dionysus that not too many people know. Something that I think you’ll find rather astounding. But first, let’s learn a bit about the cult religious traditions of Ancient Greece. [music]

The Spectacle of Unsupervised Women in Ancient Greece

The main characters of The Bacchae are men – Dionysus, Pentheus, Cadmus and Tiresias. Behind and surrounding these figures, however, are women. There are the maenad women of the chorus. There’s the tragic figure of Dionysus’ mother Semele. And beyond the environs of Thebes are the women who have been driven mad by the magic of Dionysus – Pentheus’ mother Agave and her sisters, the ill-fated women who slandered their departed sister. In fact throughout The Bacchae it’s almost like Dionysus is a warlock and the wild women out in the mountains are his coven – witches who ignore the conventions of society, eat wild, strange foods and steal children.

Real women in classical Athens, as we learned a number of shows ago, were out not despoiling the countryside, unsupervised, and suckling wild animals. Real Athenian women – particularly noble ones, was carefully superintended by their husbands and owners. The freedom of mobility and social and sexual intercourse granted to citizen men were largely denied to women. And so a play about a flock of unsupervised female religious zealots – some of them noblewomen, was a work of imaginative fiction.

The Thesmophoria

Or, for the most part, a work of imaginative fiction. There was one festival in which women took a central, and exclusive role. It was an old ritual – a relic, like Dionysus himself, from the Bronze Age or even before. And it was called the Thesmophoria. It took place in mid-October, and honored the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, and the remarkable story of her daughter Persephone. Persephone – eventually – was the goddess of the underworld. She wasn’t always this way, though – early on, Persephone was a deity of nature, picking flowers in a field. But the god of the underworld abducted her. Hades kidnapped Persephone, and Persephone’s mother Demeter was enraged. Being the goddess of the harvest, Demeter wasnot exactly powerless. She stopped all the plants from growing, and the world grinded to a standstill, until the gods told Hades had to give Persephone back to her mother. The god of the underworld complied. But Hades also knew that Persephone had already eaten pomegranate seeds in the underworld – seeds that tied her, inevitably, to the realm of Hades. And so every year, Persephone spent the winter months underground with her husband. But in the growing season, she came to earth, and the miracles of crops and wildflowers and growing vines were all hers. And that’s the story of Persephone in a nutshell. Depictions of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, are everywhere in ancient Greek art. When you see a tumultuous kidnapping scene, with a pale woman thrown over the shoulder of a brawny dark god, it’s Persephone and Hades, and it’s actually almost impossible to go to an exhibition of classical Greek art without seeing this very scene, one of the most common illustrations in black figure pottery.

'Thesmophoria' by Francis Davis Millet, 1894-1897

Francis Davis Millet’s Thesmophoria (1894-7).

So the holiday that I mentioned – the Thesmophoria – took place in mid autumn. It was the most widespread festival of Ancient Greece – we know this because a very specific sacrificial practice took place in sanctuaries to Demeter and Persephone during thisThesmophoria festival. Specifically, women dropped pigs to their deaths into chasms dug into the earth, and then drew them up again – a ritual honoring the descent of Persephone into the underworld and her arrival back on earth, year after year. Uh – although the pigs – I assume, probably didn’t come back to life. Anyway, following the pig sacrifice, subsequent days of the festival involved fasting and eating pomegranate seeds, but most importantly of all, during the Thesmophoria women performed their ceremonies in exclusively female groups, staying out all night together.

For obvious reasons, the controlling husbands of Athens and other cities were wary about their wives and daughters spending unsupervised holidays in Demeter sanctuaries. Just as Dionysus warns Pentheus that the wild women in The Bacchae don’t like to be seen by men, during the real Thesmophoria, women were supposed to have privacy. Various violent urban legends survive about women bathing in blood during the Thesmophoria, castrating an intruding king, and kidnapping other intruders.5 But archaeological remnants of the pig chasms in Demeter temples, however, don’t show any evidence of some sort of spontaneous seasonal violence toward men. The men, we suspect, stood around in the cities and grumbled worriedly about just what the women did with one another once they were beyond the limits of masculine regulation. They fretted that their wives and daughters were doing something beyond merely honoring Persephone and the changing seasons.

The Demeter and Persephone story, if you think about it, must have resonated with the confined women of Classical Athens. It’s a story about an unbreakable mother and daughter bond, about a girl who, before she is ready, is snatched up into a marriage and suddenly confined in a claustrophobic space – a myth, sadly enough, which was the true story of the tens of thousands of real women who attended Thesmophoria rituals, year after year in the ancient Aegean world. Largely deprived of unregulated social interaction, the women who attended the Thesmophoria each autumn may have seen the festival as their single week of rising from the upper rooms of their homes and being resurrected into the social freedoms they’d once enjoyed as girls. They were the Persephones, enjoying an all-too-brief season of unmediated togetherness with other women. It’s easy enough to see those parallels. And ancient Greek men were fascinated by the Thesmophoria – by the idea that women had, for a short span, a small degree of social freedom. Six years before The Bacchae, Aristophanes’ play Thesmophoriazusae (or, women celebrating the Thesmophoria) premiered alongside his more famous Lysistrata – both of these plays are about groups of women banning together to wage campaigns against male domination.

Okay, so, let’s boil it down. There were certain festivals in Ancient Greece that predominantly involved women – the Thesmophoria is the most famous one. These festivals, at the end of the 400s, had made the spectacle of, and the fear of women running rampant a sort of preoccupation with the theatergoing public of Athens. The people who attended Euripides’ play The Bacchae in 405 had already thought about women getting together and doing questionable things, and dangerous things. And so when they heard The Bacchae’s chorus – those fanatical maenad women who so unwaveringly supported Dionysus, and when they heard of the roving band of bloodthirsty women in the countryside, Athens’ men might have thought of the Thesmophoria, and their ancestral anxieties about unfettered groups of women.

Cults and the Spectacle of the Maenads in The Bacchae

But Euripides’ audience in 405 BCE, when they saw those volatile female Dionysus worshippers onstage, would have thought about more than just the Thesmophoria. Euripides’ original audience might have had another culturally conditioned reaction to the women rampaging through the Theban countryside. It was a spectacle not only of unrestrained women. It was a spectacle of people, apart from their polis or city state, whose primary loyalty was to a single god, and who would do anything – including atrocious acts of murder, for their single god. To a patriotic Athenian of 405 BCE, as the city buckled and groaned in the awful final year of the Peloponnesian War, the spectacle of religious enthusiasts dancing underneath trees, and murdering their own king, must have seemed particularly absurd, and particularly unspeakable. Loyalty to polis and fidelity to the city and its ships had been the characterizing mantra of an entire generation brought up in wartime Athens. The spread of cult religions in the late 400s – and we’ll talk about this in a second – the spread of cult religions at the end of the 400s meant that Athenian leaders had to contend not only with Spartans and their allies abroad, but with religious factiousness within their own walls.

Cults. Cults, cults, cults. Every great religion started as a cult – a little envelope of people united around a single purpose or figure. Cults thrive and grow during periods of social disintegration – of course we as human beings want to come together and believe that there are simple, or otherworldly answers to our complex problems here on earth. And while the birth of cults may provide new means of unification for their leaders and adherents, to the eyes of an established civilization, cults seem dangerous – like water that cracks the masonry of the state. For a tight oligarchy – one which controls the lion’s share of wealth and resources, cults mean unregulated convocations of people – lower class, upper class, men, and women, all gathering together for impassioned rituals and the exchange of new ideas. Maybe, that’s why to this day the word “cult” still seems to have negative connotations – it reeks of people in hoods by firelight doing something subversive. If you think about it, “cult” should be a perfectly neutral word. After all, scriptures and history alike attest to the fact that the followers of Yahweh, and Buddha, and Jesus, and Mohammad all began as tightly knit cults, organized around compelling new ideas.

Anyway, in the late 400s, various cults were flourishing in Euripides’ Athens. I want to talk about three major cults, and you can think of them as three circles overlapping one another – a Venn diagram, but with three circles. They had elements in common, and elements distinct from one another. And posterity has called them the Pythagorean, Orphic, and Bacchic cults. Let’s start with the Pythagorean. [cults ditty]

The Pythagoreans

Pythagoras, who lived in the mid-500s BCE in southern Italy, is now of course known for A2 + B2 = C2, the Pythagorean theorem. But although we think of him as a mathematician, Euripides and his contemporaries thought of this earlier Greek as a cult leader. At the core of Pythagoras’ beliefs was the doctrine of reincarnation, and the immortality of souls. That was, in the 500s and 400s BCE, a new idea in the Aegean world. Let me emphasize that. In the Homeric epics there is no reincarnation. The dead descend to Hades, where they live a life vastly inferior to their earthly one.6 And that’s it. And so the Pythagorean notion – this notion of a mystic and mathematician who lived in Southern Italy in the 500s – the Pythagorean notion of resurrection of immortal souls was a dramatic departure from traditional religion. To the Pythagoreans, the human soul was athanatos, or immortal – a word in Homer that’s used only alongside the gods.

Because they believed in reincarnation and the immortality of souls, Pythagoreans had a very careful and conscientious mode of self conduct. They observed strict dietary regulations. They saw not only in animals, but in all things a possibility that any given scrap of ash, or mote of dust had had a past life. They were famous for not even eating beans. They were the butt of many jokes, but nonetheless their otherworldly beliefs, their careful eating, and mindful self conduct didn’t exactly make them seem like a threat. So the Pythagoreans are the first of our three circles – those overlapping circles which are the major cults of Classical Greece in the late 400s. Let’s go on to the second circle. [cults ditty]

The Orphics

Often associated with the Pythagoreans was a sect called the Orphics. Throughout the 400s BCE, there was a poem, purportedly written by mythical musician Orpheus, and it was in wide circulation. This poem was a bit like Hesiod’s Theogony, if you happened to catch Episode 8 of this podcast. Like Hesiod’s Theogony, the great Orpheus poem told the story of the creation of the universe. But, unlike its predecessor, the poem began even before Gaia and Ouranos, and said that instead of these two titans, elemental night was the beginning of all things. This poem has been lost, but we know it was a central part of what we now call Orphic religion.

Now, the Orphics had a lot in common with the Pythagoreans. The Orphics also believed in reincarnation, and the immortality of the human soul, and self denial. Orphics were vegetarians, and they ate no eggs, and never partook in alcohol. In the dialogues Cratylus and Phaedo, Plato writes that the Orphics led a life of repentance, and expected little happiness from earthly existence. To Orphics, each person’s body was a phroura, or a guard post or garrison – a fortress that locked in a soul until it had paid its due. Orphics made themselves content with a life of poverty and contrition, confident that their immortal souls would some day transmigrate into something beyond their present lives. And fascinatingly, part of the way that Orphism was spread was through texts. There was that mystical text of the demigod musician Orpheus – that text that said that night had come before mother Gaia and father Ouranos, a text that we presume laid out some of the doctrines of the immortality of the soul, and repentance, and careful self-regulation. This notion that religion could come from a book – even if it were just to the literate minority, still – that religion could come from a book was in Euripides’ century something new, and probably something unsettling. That is – obviously – strange for us to imagine. So the Pythagoreans, and then the Orphics, were two major cults in Classical Greece, having much in common, but not everything. And this takes us to the third major cult – the cult of Dionysus. [cults ditty]

The Dionysian Cult

Alright, so the third major cult – the cult of Dionysus. Athens had its state festival in honor of Dionysus – the city Dionysia, which we’ve been talking about for nine episodes, now. But Dionysus had other rites and rituals – secret rites and rituals, involving drunkenness, and sex, and – it is occasionally mentioned in the archaeological record, the eating of raw flesh.7 These celebrations often took place at night, and they were not, like Greece’s ancestral rituals, overseen by dynasties of priests and priestesses. They were not in state temples, but often in caves, and scenic glades – places improvised according to the congregation. At cult celebrations to Dionysus, adherents went through initiation rituals.

What these rituals were surely varied over the decades, but a surviving text from the 400s suggests the purpose of such initiation rituals. This text says that initiates of Dionysus – those worshippers who had joined a cult and completed sacred rites – would be able to take a secret path. The initiates of Dionysus, according to this text, would be able to find a white cypress tree towering over a treacherous pool of water, and – because they had been initiated – they’d be able to speak a secret password, which would lead to their glorification in the afterlife.8 At least some Dionysian initiates, then, in the obscure caves and hollows where they performed their rituals, believed that they had found the key to exclusive, immortal life. [music]

The Bacchae and the Major Cults of Ancient Greece

In our three overlapping cults – the Pythagoreans, the Orphics, and the Dionysians, I imagine you noticed something. You noticed a certain je ne sais quois of a medieval monastery, and more generally, Christianity. The first two cults practice radical self-denial – dietary restrictions, coupled with the notion that earthly life is merely a prelude to a second life. The third adds to this a belief that an initiated sect of believers, at a pivotal moment just after they die, can have access to a better fate than the common rabble. And yes, all of this sounds quite a bit like Christianity. But hold onto that for a second.

Gregorio Lazzarini - Orpheus and the Bacchantes (detail) - WGA12528

Gregorio Lazzarini’s Orpheus and the Bacchantes (detail) (c. 1710). Orpheus, much like King Pentheus, died a grisly death at the hands of intoxicated celebrants of Dionysus.

I want to stay in Euripides’ shoes – or sandals, you know, a bit longer. And Euripides didn’t care about Christianity, because Christianity wasn’t coming down the pipes for another four centuries. Euripides cared more about how these newfangled religious cults differed from the customary traditions of Ancient Greece. Now for one, again, these emerging cults put religion outside of the scope of grand rituals overseen by city officials, like the City Dionysia itself. These new cults were a centrifugal force, an outward spinning spiral that sent believers off into factions who were often more interested in personal purity and the afterlife than in affairs of the state. This was a big, big deal.

And theologically speaking, it was equally significant that the cult religions of Ancient Greece invited initiates to think that maybe – hopefully – their humdrum lives in their imperfect polis were only drab preludes to something better. If they didn’t like Thebes, or Athens, or Corinth, it was no matter. They’d transmigrate, or possibly take the narrow way of the white cypress in the afterlife, and all of the affairs of their cities and governments would be forgotten soon enough. Just as importantly, they didn’t have to worry about the previously all-important goddess Themis, the upholder of divine order, or the Moirai, the goddesses of fate who ruled even Zeus. No, no, no. With the right cult initiations, and, for the Pythagoreans and Orphics, a life of dietary regulation and moderation, anyone could usurp the threads of fate and determine her own posthumous existence. That’s the bottom line, really. With these new cult religions, you can see the Homeric worldview, in which we have little control over our fates, and no unchanging immortal essence, giving way to religions like Christianity, in which we have sovereignty over our fates, and eternal souls.

Euripides didn’t know that all around the walls of Athens, the people who were getting tanked and having orgies in caves were part of a slow evolution. He didn’t know that this evolution had begun with the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt – with our Episode 4’s Book of the Dead, where we first see a doctrine of human immortality, and heaven, and a terrible alternative, for the very first time. What Euripides saw was a complex and disparate unfolding of religious traditions – partly through books, partly through hedonistic booze and sex parties – traditions which had to have been one of the most curious spectacles of that period of Greek history. Euripides concerns himself with Ancient Greek cults in The Bacchae, and also in his earlier play Hippolytus.9 The cults of Ancient Greece were a real, volatile social issue, warranting commentary by every major writer of the period, and later Plato and Aristotle.

I want to bring it back to the main idea of this episode – again, in its title – Episode 34: The Traditions of Our Forefathers. I think there’s plenty of evidence in The Bacchae that Euripides wants to honor ancestral religion and customs, and that he’s uncomfortable with impiety and apostasy. But I think there’s just as much evidence that Euripides is expressing disgust at the dangerous world of emerging religious sects. We could play tug-of-war with those two interpretations and not get very far. So I want to suggest another way of interpreting it – and this is the reason I named this episode “The Traditions of Our Forefathers.”

When Euripides depicts the worshippers of Dionysus in his play, it’s possible that he’s taking a middle road between orthodoxy and atheism. Maybe he’s not interested in validating traditional religion, nor is he interested in disproving the existence of the gods. Maybe he’s simply depicting a situation that was unfolding in the Aegean world in real time – the explosion of cult religions. Some of these cult religions were newfangled, like the Pythagorean sect. Others had ties to the obscure and archaic past – even the Bronze Age – customs that were ancient even in Euripides’ time. But in either case, religion, in Athens, in 405 BCE, was a powerful, galvanizing social force. It’s a strange claim for me to make that one of the impulses behind Euripides’ final play might have actually been documentary realism. Because there is a lot of sensationalism in the play The Bacchae – dismemberment and eating raw flesh and topless Theban princesses running around gulping wine from magical springs. This wasn’t a play about everyday life – it was, of course a blood and thunder drama, engineered to entertain. But in addition to entertaining, in its own intensified way, The Bacchae holds a mirror up to the new cults, and new ideas proliferating in Athens at the end of the 400s. In this mirror, we see both edges of the new cult religions – their power to bring people together, and their power to tear people apart. [music]

The Endurance of Bronze and Iron Age Cult Practices

Now, I have one final thing to offer – that thing I said I thought you might find astounding – that final anecdote about Dionysus, or, as he was once called in a Bronze Age Linear B tablet, di-wo-nu-so-jo. There was a religious tradition alive and well in Euripides’ time – and it was alive in Orphism as well as in the worship of Dionysus. And this tradition was that the main figure of each religion, whether Orpheus or Dionysus, had died in a particularly gruesome way. According to a lost play by Aeschylus, Orpheus, the demigod of music, scorned Dionysus, instead worshipping Apollo. As punishment, Dionysus sent a swarm of maenad women to Orpheus, and Orpheus was torn to shreds.10 So, one of the reasons for Orphics to have such stringent dietary regulations was because of a sense of guilt and loathing of the material world, because the material world had murdered their muse.

Orpheus, then, was a demigod who had had a horrible death. And Ancient Greek religion deals with the death of another god – this one Dionysus himself. Now, I know we’ve been at it for a little while, but still – check this out – this part may be the most fascinating and memorable part of the show for you. The story of Dionysus’ mother being killed and then Dionysus being born from Zeus’ thigh or scrotum wasn’t the only tale of his birth. There was another one – a version of the story that began proliferating, we think, later in Ancient Greek history, in a lost text called the Rhapsodies.

The other legend of Dionysus’ birth also states that he is the son of Zeus, but the story is slightly different. In the second legend, Zeus rapes his mother, Rhea. Rhea gives birth to Persephone. Zeus then rapes his sister slash daughter. Persephone then gives birth to Dionysus, who is Zeus’ son, and grandson, and nephew. To this young deity, Zeus hands over control of the earth. Now, Hera, as always, is jealous of Zeus’ affairs and ocean of illegitimate children, especially one so prominent. And so Hera has titans trick young Dionysus into being inattentive, and then the young deity, like Pentheus, and like Orpheus, is torn to pieces. Unlike these other two, however, Dionysus is also boiled and eaten. Zeus is so furious that he strikes the violent titans with a thunderbolt, and from the ashes and cinders come mankind – whose birth is made possible by Dionysus’ divine sacrifice. Dionysus isn’t gone for good, however. A few bloody scraps survive the ravages of the titans, and these scraps arise again to become Dionysus. This myth was well known by the two hundreds, and evidence exists suggesting that it was secretly in circulation as early as the late 500s, this story about a god, who was the son of a god, who died so that mankind could live.11 Alright, so, we have two myths of gods dying and suffering terrible demises. And in the case of Dionysus, the deity rises again from his demise to continue his sovereignty. The story of the death of a god was something new in the Aegean world. It’s reasonable to suspect that it came in part from the Egyptian story of Osiris –a god torn to pieces and reconstituted by his sister – a tale which had existed since the 2000s BCE. But in Homer, unlike in the legends of Orpheus, and Osiris, and Dionysus – in Homer, and in Hesiod, gods do not die. In the Iliad and Odyssey, immortal means immortal. New trends, whether domestic or foreign, were making their way into the religions of Ancient Greece in the lifetime of Euripides and changing the way that people thought about immortality. Suddenly gods could die – and men, if they spoke the right password at the white cypress, or completed some sacred rite of initiation – men could live forever.

Catholics taking communion during mass at St Teresas church in Summit NJ

A group of Catholics take communion at a mass in Summit, New Jersey. The practice of eating and drinking consecrated food and wine has roots in the Bronze Age.

Now, a ritual existed by the time of the ancient historian Diodorus of Sicily, a man who lived a few decades before the birth of Christ. By this time, in the Aegean and Mediterranean world, the myth of Dionysus’ death and resurrection was pervasive enough that rituals to Dionysus invoked wine as the blood of Dionysus.12 Initiates drank the blood of Dionysus at his annual rituals – particularly the springtime Anthesteria festival, to honor Dionysus’ terrible pain, and his sacrifice. If men and women believed the old story of Dionysus, then drinking the blood of Dionysus was a way of honoring the sacrifice that he had made, so that they could rise from the ashes of the titans.

These are likely origin points for a ritual – a ritual that, as I’m sure you know, is called communion, and is still practiced today. Communion – this belief that we can share the blood and flesh of a sacrifice to express some combination of gratitude and repentance – communion is older than the Catholic Church, older than the Roman Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, under whom Jesus Christ lived, older than the priestly rites of the Book of Leviticus, or Homer, older than the city of Troy, or Knossos, or Babylon, or the Indo-European migration. The New Testament, at its core, is the story of a blood sacrifice, and whether they involve symbolism or real bloodshed, ancient amphoras full of wine or low calorie Eucharist wafers, sacrificial rituals have been a part of mankind since at least the inception of civilization. These rituals, and stories, are what Euripides hauntingly calls “The Traditions of Our Forefathers.” And learning about them teaches us that however much we like to think of the evolution of civilization as a neat, 45-degree upward slope, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, and gods that at first glance seem bemusingly antiquated – that the traditions of our ancient forefathers continue to dominate the way that we think about the world. Sons of gods, and resurrections, and sacrifices, and beginnings and ends of earth – these had their birth in hieroglyphics and cuneiform, hieratic and ancient Greek script on papyrus. The word “bible,” after all, comes from the Hellenistic Greek expression ta biblia, for “papyrus books,” and the stories of Jesus first spread through the world in Greek. And as much as Dionysus might seem like a benchwarmer for mightier deities, he seems to have been one of the oldest gods of all, one whose rituals are alive and well all around us today, four thousand years after Mycenaean and Minoan Greeks began carving his name into Bronze Age sanctuaries and honoring him with rituals of wine. [music]

Moving on to Aristophanes

Well, folks, I think eight Ancient Greek tragedies is enough for now. Out of the 32 or so great Athenian tragedies that survive – seven by Aeschylus, seven by Sophocles, and eighteen by Euripides, we’ve just covered eight – just a quarter of them. I think that the eight we covered are probably the ones that had the most influence on Anglophone literature, which is where we’re headed eventually, but if you want to check out, say, Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, or Electra by Sophocles or The Trojan Women and Helen by Euripides, they’re all of similar caliber. If you’ve been with me for the past eight shows, you’re going to tear right through these short, compressed plays and really enjoy them. And I put some recommended editions and plays on the notes for this show on my website.13

After tragedy comes, of course, some comedy. In the next show, we’re going to read the first of two plays by the comedic playwright Aristophanes, possibly the most famous funnyman of the ancient world. Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is a rip roaring satire about certain strange intellectual fads that were blazing through Athens at the end of the 400s. And one of its main characters is a certain obscure, seldom mentioned Greek philosopher named Socrates. Join me in Episode 35 for The Clouds, a play with fart jokes, grotesque x-rated humor, fake penises, no holds barred satirical beat downs, and – amidst all of this – a surprisingly rich portrait of the intellectual culture of wartime Athens. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’m going to end this show with something a bit special.

Two Songs

First of all, we’re going to have two songs. The first is not written or performed by me – it’s a recording, in Ancient Greek, with traditional instruments, of the most famous ode in Ancient Greek tragedy – the “Ode to Man” that occurs early in Sophocles’ play Antigone. And the second is one of my normal comedy songs.

So before I play you the “Ode to Man” from Antigone, I want to tell you a little bit about it. Specifically, this ode is sung by the chorus after King Creon begins to unveil himself as the tyrant that he is. You might not have caught that episode or remember the events of that play, but basically, King Creon has laid a death sentence on poor loyal Antigone and anyone who helps her, and the king gone on to tell an innocent sentry that he, too, will be murdered if he can’t produce information about a crime that’s been committed against the state. The “Ode to Man” is spoken at a moment in the play Antigone in which everything is uncertain, and it’s a statement about both the power, and the frailty of the human condition. Here’s the relevant lines from the Robert Fagles translation, published in 1982 by Penguin Books, in a volume called The Three Theban Plays.
Numberless wonders
terrible woners walk the world but none the match for man –
that great wonder crossing the heaving gray sea,
    driven on by the blasts of winter
on through breakers crashing left and right
    holds his steady course
and the oldest of the gods he wears away –
the earth, the immortal, the inexhaustible –
as his plows go back and forth, year in, year out. . .

And speech and thought, quick as the wind
and the mood and mind for law that rules the city –
    all these he has taught himself. . .

Never without resources
never an impasse as he marches on the future –
only Death, from Death alone he will find no rescue
[although] from desperate plagues he has plotted his escapes.

Man the master, ingenious past all measure
past all dreams, the skills within his grasp –
    he forges on, now to destruction
now again to greatness.14
Now, to close our whole set on Greek tragedy, let’s hear what this might have actually sounded like, when it was first performed during the Peloponnesian War in Athens, 2,450 years ago. This song comes to us courtesy of Lantern Jack, a fellow musician and host of the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast, a fantastic program which I’ll tell you more about next time and try to convince you to listen to. The performance you’ll hear was recorded by a chorus made up of students from Columbia and Barnard at a performance of Antigone in 2008, and Lantern Jack, again the host of the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast, played all the instruments, including the bouzouki.

[Ode to Man]

That again was the “Ode to Man” from Sophocles’ play Antigone. And the performance was students from the choirs of Columbia and Barnard combined in 2008, arranged and with instrumentation and instrumental performances from Lantern Jack of Ancient Greece Declassified, another free educational podcast I’ll tell you all about soon. And with that overall note of solemnity, I’m tempted to tell you to just switch off, now, and be left with the authentic sound of real Ancient Greek and Sophocelan meter – the sound an actual Greek chorus might have made in the decades of Sophocles and Euripides. But – we are moving to Aristophanes, and so maybe some comedy is in order. This concludes the serious and academic part of this episode. You have been warned. So I got to thinking. Got to thinking about Dionysus, and I’ve been listening to a ton of old school hip hop at work. And I wondered what it would sound like if Dionysus were given a job interview, and this job interview were spontaneously interrupted by a hip hop anthem, in which Dionysus, god of wine and madness and ecstasy, took it upon himself to offer a discourse on his life philosophy. Got to thinking about all that, and I wrote this song – it’s called “Interview with Dionysus.” I hope you like it, and my good friend Aristophanes and I will see you next time.

1.^ It’s impossible to imagine the Aeschylus of The Eumenides, for instance, writing the impious speeches of Euripides’ Heracles (1341-6), or Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Tauris (386-91). Sophocles’ tragic heroes – Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus, and Electra, can be contrasted with the moral darkness of Women of Troy, Hecuba, Iphigenia in Taurus, and Helen, in which an overarching moral nihilism makes even acts of tragic resistance meaningless.

2.^ See Chadwick, John and Ventris, Michael. Documents in Mycenaean Greek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974, p. 127. The authors note the source of this name as fragment Xa06.

3.^ See Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1988, p. 44.

4.^ Euripides. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Translated by John Davie and with an Introduction and notes by Richard Rutherford. New York and London: Penguin, 2006, p. 128. Further references are noted parenthetically.

5.^ See Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1988, pp. 243-4.

6.^ Odysseus’ famous conversation with the ghost of Achilles in Book 11 of The Odyssey is the most famous piece of evidence for the views of posthumous existence shared in Archaic Greece.

7.^ See Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1988, p. 291.

8.^ Ibid, pp. 293-5.

9.^ Theseus tells his son Hippolytus, “Continue then your confident boasting, take up a diet of greens and play the showman with your food, make Orpheus your lord and engage in mystic rites, holding the vaporings of many books in honor.” Quoted from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0106%3Acard%3D936.

10.^ The play is The Bassarids. A traditional way that The Bacchae has been interpreted has been the Nietzschean dichotomy of Apollo (cold rationalism) vs. Dionysus (wild impulsiveness), most famously written about in The Birth of Tragedy. This is the dichotomy I learned of in graduate school, first in the work of Foucault, and then Deleuze. I think that while Apollonian and Dionysian are a nice pair (and match up with other great humanities schisms like Enlightenment vs. Romanticism) they ride roughshod over the multifacetedness of both of these ancient gods.

11.^ For a longer discussion of this see Burkert pp. 297-8.

12.^ See Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, p. 238.

13.^ Aeschylus: A great volume when you’re ready to move beyond the Oresteian trilogy is The Persians and Other Plays, translated and edited by Alan Sommerstein. The book contains The Persians, Prometheus Bound, Seven Against Thebes and The Suppliants, all of which have come up in our podcast. Sophocles: Beyond the Theban plays we read, I recommend the volume Electra and Other Plays, which includes Electra, Ajax, Women of Trachis, and Philoctetes. Euripides: There are many tremendous Euripides plays beyond Medea and The Bacchae. Two great Penguin collections contain both these two as well as many others – these are The Bacchae and Other Plays, which I used for this show, and then Medea and Other Plays, which I used for the previous one.

14.^ Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1984, pp. 76-7, lines 377-85, 95-7, 402-9.