“Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on. This peace between Athena’s people and their guests must never end. All-seeing Zeus and Fate embrace, down they come to urge our union on—Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on!” That is how Aeschylus ended his Oresteia trilogy. The furies, which had so hounded and haunted Orestes, had transformed into co-laborers with Athena singing and dancing for the joy of reason and civilization. Euripides, the great cynic and blasphemer, took a darker and starker approach to the gods and Greek civilization—perhaps one of the reasons why he was less successful than his predecessors in being awarded at festivals and competitions for his writing.
The Bacchae is a classic cornerstone of Western literature. It is the one play of Euripides’ that is part of the undisputed classical canon, though Medea, Iphigenia in Aulis, and the Trojan Women are also masterpieces and should be read to get a fuller portrait of Euripides.
The Failure of Reason and the Fall of Athena
Euripides wrote in an anxious and transformative age. The Persians had just been defeated and Athens, Athena, had ascended as the premier power among the Greeks. Euripides was but a young man when Athens ascended to her infamous glory that still mesmerizes—and haunts—our civilization. The Athenian empire, as recounted by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, was exceptional because it was not the product of conquest but of mutual defense. No other empire, the Athenian delegates argue, had ever been formed in such a manner.
But the later plays of Euripides, including his Bacchae, are set in dire and dark times. Athens’ grand Sicilian conquest had failed. The Peloponnesian War had turned against Athens. And the city was suffering from civil war, sexual depravity, and the general disintegration of its society. Euripides might be reaching back to ancient and mythological figures, but their tales and fates are eerily similar to the Athens at the end of the fifth century on the eve of the death of Euripides. The darkness of Euripides’ tragedies coincides with the nadir of Athenian grandeur. It is well known that many of his plays composed during the Peloponnesian War (like the Trojan Women) are veiled commentaries on the state of Athenian society and the war itself.
The Athens celebrated by Athena and the transformed furies at the end of Aeschylus’ Eumenides—and the Athens eulogized by Pericles in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War—is not the Athens that Euripides composed his late plays to reflect. The Bacchae, among the last of Euripides’ plays, was composed in a tumultuous city filled with strife and conflict. And though the play is set in Thebes, the tragedy that befalls Pentheus is an esoteric commentary on the state of Athenian society and the insufficiency of the gods of the city.
Athena is the goddess of wisdom, of reason and persuasion, alongside being a strong goddess of war. But her wisdom and justice are what primarily define her. And that her name is bore by Athens—Athens is supposed to be the wise and just city in mirror reflection of its patron deity which exonerated Orestes and transformed the furies.
Something wicked comes to Greece. This is the reality of the situation when the Bacchae opens. Dionysus travels in from the eastern lands. Dionysus, though a nominally Greek god, is presented, by Euripides, as if a foreign oriental sex god. Moreover, the power of Dionysus is immediately made known to the crowd, or reader: “I come from Lydia, its territories teeming with gold; and from rich Phrygia. I am all-conqueror in the sun beaten steppes of Persia, the walled cities of Bactria, the wintry lands of Media, and in Arabia Felix—land of the blest. All Asia is mine, and along the fringes of the sea, the pinnacled glory of all those mingled cities of Greeks and many races.” Everywhere Dionysus goes he “conquer[s].” No land, whether south, east, north, or, now, west, can escape the consuming madness of Dionysus, Bacchus, and the Bacchants.
We may have now forgotten, but it certainly wasn’t lost on fifth century Athenians, that dancing is an intrinsically sexual act. Dancing is the great rite, the grand ritual, that Dionysus brings with him. As Dionysus proclaims, “Elsewhere, everywhere, I have established my sacraments and dances, to make my godhead manifest to mortals.” Elsewhere indeed, the chorus which lauds over Dionysus sings: “For sacred dances and joy…In the mountains the wild delight of Bacchus in his soul. His ritual he undergoes: Cybele’s orgies, great Mother’s, He shakes the thyrsus on high.”
The women of Thebes are entranced, as if sex slaves, by this new god and his rituals. They lose their cloths and their minds, dancing and howling wildly on the mountain at night. The social order of the city is so threatened that Pentheus orders Dionysus arrested and his men prepared for battle to put an end to this threat. Pentheus, as the King of Thebes, has a duty to protect his citizens and the social fabric (and order) of his civilization which he, correctly, perceives to be threatened by the arrival of Dionysus.
It is now well accepted that Euripides did not have a change of heart late in life. Euripides had always been critical of the gods. He was, at the eve of his death, still critical of the gods.
Moderns may be sympathetic to Dionysus, but Dionysus is hardly presented in any sympathetic light by Euripides. Euripides sees little good in Dionysus after he viciously and brutally turns on Pentheus, intoxicating the king who giggles like a girl and dresses like a woman to get a better view of the naked women of the city in their entranced ritual dancing and moaning. Pentheus, however, is not without fault. But as the play reaches its climax, we grieve for Pentheus, his mother, and his grandfather, but hardly shed a tear for Dionysus. In fact, we turn on Dionysus and wish to tear him limb from limb just as the Titans had done to him.
“The contemporary reading of fun-loving Dionysus against power imposing Pentheus misses the obvious and more contextual reality of the play. Both Dionysus and Pentheus are engaged in an exercise of power and will and not “freedom vs. tyranny” as post-World War II readings tend to now assert.”
The contemporary reading of fun-loving Dionysus against power imposing Pentheus misses the obvious and more contextual reality of the play. Both Dionysus and Pentheus are engaged in an exercise of power and will and not “freedom vs. tyranny” as post-World War II readings tend to now assert. Pentheus may have acted with impiety toward this foreign oriental sex god, but Pentheus certainly had the foresight, as the play reveals by his grizzly dismemberment at the hands of the women of the city—including his own mother—of the threat that Dionysus posed. In Pentheus challenging Dionysus, the king is not challenging the free-loving and free-playing Dionysus but challenging Dionysus’ lust for control and power. After all, when Dionysus is introduced, he proclaims his power of conquest and that all the world, sans Hellas, has been brought under his dominion.
The contest between Pentheus and Dionysus is one of power. Pentheus understands the arrival of this foreign sex-crazed god as a threat to his power but also the power and social order of Thebes. Dionysus, in seeing Pentheus’ seriousness in gathering his armies for battle and clearing out the mountains of the Bacchants, understands that his power is being threatened by Pentheus. Sacrilege and impiety are mere pretexts to kill the king, which is precisely what Dionysus concludes must happen for his power—not his free-loving and free-playing spirit—to survive. Irrespective of the reception and development of Dionysus in the subsequent tradition, the Dionysus of Euripides is a cold, lustful, and power-hungry dark god of vindictive cruelty. Dionysus is a god of dark fear and manipulation; his dark presence fills Pentheus with fear and, when Pentheus challenges Dionysus’ arrival, he manipulates the king to be torn limb from limb by his induced dancers…