Commentary on Euripides Bacchae or Bacchantes

Euripides was born c.485 BC, possibly on Salamis, and died in Macedonia in 406. Though he was scarcely a generation younger than Sophocles, his world view better reflects the political, social, and intellectual crises of late 5th-century Athens. He was friendly with the philosophers Anaxagoras and Socrates and with Sophists such as Protagoras and Prodicus, and his plays reflect contemporary ethics, rhetoric, and science. He may have been prosecuted for impiety by the demagogue Cleon. Less reverent than Aeschylus or Sophocles, Euripides criticized traditional religion and shocked contemporaries by representing mythical figures as everyday, unheroic people or even as abnormal or neurotic personalities.

Shortly after 408 he left Athens for the court of Archelaus, king of Macedon, and there wrote one of his greatest plays, The Bacchae, first produced in Athens in 405 BC, the most demonic known work of the ancient Attic theater, revealing the punishment that the wine god Dionysus visits upon Thebes and its youthful king, the puritanical Pentheus, for rejecting his divinity. Euripides advances a bewildering array of techniques and ideas. Divine, human, animal, and sexual identities are confused; miracles and distortions of world, psyche and behavior abound. The Bacchae is the most explicit expression of Euripides' involvement with the ambiguities, paradoxes, and deceptions residing in the human condition.

Bacchae relates how Dionysus leads Pentheus and his mother to their mutual doom for not worshipping the fertility god. He first exposes himself bound to Pentheus who makes to bind and murder him. His maenads all escape and revel in the forest and Pentheus' mother Agave becomes compulsively induced to join the revelry. Pentheus attempts to lead his troops to violently suppress the rites but they become confused. Pentheus becomes deranged and wanders in Dionysus' thrall to spy on the Bacchanal. He is then discovered and dismembered by his own mother, to the tragedy of the entire family after Dionysus manifests as a burning pillar and drives the maenads to franzy. The tragic denoument arrives when she returns to Thrace and discovers her Bacchic trophy is her own son's remains.


Virtually everyone who reads Euripides' tragedy of Pentheus being torn apart by Dionysus's frenzied maenads, led his own mother at the God's instigation reacts with horror to this story of a violent god exacting frenzied retribution for the 'slight' of failing to respect and observe his rites.

It seems almost impossible for us to compare such a God with the loving message of Jesus and such a vengeful retribution with Jesus self-sacrificing attitude of atonement in the Crucifixion. However if we telescope the two figure of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb and the apocalyptic judge of the returning Christ together, we find a picture very reminiscent of Dionysus and for exactly the same 'slight', for it is noted that in the Day of Judgement there will be a wailing and gnashing of teeth and not just Pentheus, but all who did not believe in this saviour will be consigned to eternal torment and damnation. The sacrificial and the vengeful Christ thus in a separated time-span echo almost precisely the twin advent of Dionysus as meek sacrificial prisoner in chains and as a pillar of lightning stirring his maenads to slaughter in the forest glade where Actaeon also met his death devoured by his own dogs at Artemis' slighted hand at the hunt.

One aspect which does differ strongly from the Christian view of piety and docility is the violent ecstasy of the maenads who are described as tearing live animals to pieces and to give any man which spies on their rites the same treatment. This is of course in one sense in major contrast to Christianity on two counts. Firstly the maenads are apparently wilder and more independent than Christian worshippers, but one has to note in contrast the frankly supportive role played by the women of Galilee and Jesus' many female companions, especially Magdalen, Salome and Martha

Secondly the inebriation of this Dionysian wine is apparently far more psychedelic than the flesh and blood of the eucharist. It is known that the Dionysian cult used not just wine but an hallucinogenic brew and that the maenads were reputed to have red eyes with dilated pupils from the ingestion of tropanes from mandrake and related plants. Other psychotropics have also been suggested as well. This raises an important issue that a central aspect of the disorientation of the Dionysian chaos experience is eschatologically in the mind, in the disintegration of normal reality that accompanies the onset of the visionary state.

However again these differences are deceptive, for the eucharist is the central communion in Christianity and related directly to the Dionysian miraculous in the water-into-wine at the Cana epiphany. Bacchae notes the drinking of fresh blood. John does likewise metaphorically in anticipation of the flesh and blood Crucifixion: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood Ye have no life in you" is Dionysian to the core. There have been suggestions of a similar psychotropic tradition running through Jesus' sacred repast all the way to Pentecost.

The reality-transofmation of the 'altered state' is reinforced throughout by the magical manifestations of Dionysian vision from the springs and wine bursting forth from the maenads' wands "and one took her thyrsus and struck it into the earth and forth there gushed a limpid spring" and the troops in disarray, to statements of prophecy: "This god too hath prophetic power, for there is no small prophecy inspired by Bacchic frenzy; for wherever the god in his full might enters the human frame, he makes his frantic votaries foretell the future." This 'manifestation' of god in man is equally central to the gnostic tradition of Christianity.

In coming to an assessment of Bacchae, one has to take into account both that Dionysus is the figurehead of the entire tradition of Greek theatre, that there were three tragedies for each comedy and that to fulfil the tragic performance of theatre's founding God requires the enactment of a sacrificial rite of utterly tragic irony. It is in the weaving of these motifs that the full horror of the story takes its cathartic toll. One also needs to account Euripides' personal philosophy in his portrayal of Dionysus' amorality and destructive personality.

However here we need to see ancient historical precedents. Pentheus is killed in women's attire, just as Dionysus was want to wear. He is sacrificed in the guise of a lion, to the rites of Dionysus in the stead of the dying and resurrected God. "who assumed women's dress and took the fair Bacchic wand, sure pledge of death, with a bull to guide him to his doom". Such animal sacrifice is sourced in precisely such a tradition of male sacrifice to the dying and reborn fertility God and lies in the most ancient traditions of the fertility god in ancient Greece, not a newcomer, except in so far as his new-found charisma indicates. Again this has an uncanny parallel to Jesus' controversial mission which likewise polarized the society in which he lived.

It is of great significance that Euripides specifically mentions Arabia as one of Dionysus' lands of conquest, as Dhu Shara, the God of Nabataean Edom was a form of Dionysus, and Jesus' title as the True Vine, the rod out of the stem of Jesse, and flesh and blood of God reflect far more closely this tradition than the Jewish Yahwistic one. Abba the elusive father is also more akin to Zeus than Yahweh, as is the union of celestial God and mortal mother, Mary taking the role of a (surviving) Semele. This dissonance is reflected in many forms, the Jews name Esau for Jesus which still remains in the (Arabian) Qur'an as Isa, and the noted journey of Paul into Arabia in founding the more Hellenistic view of Christianity that became Catholicism.

Like Jesus, Dionysus is unique as god manifesting as man: "I have put off the god and taken on human shape and so to present myself at Dirse's springs and the waters of Ismenus." He thus appears first bound before Pentheus as a long-haired young man, then as an exalted miraculous presence which has escaped bonds he lures Pentheus and excites the maenads, and finally he is the flaming pilar and the tragic fate revealed.

The vengeful Dionysus is very much Christ in this Day of Judgement mold: " And as he spake, he raised 'twixt heaven and earth a dazzling column of awful flame. Hushed grew the sky, and still hung each leaf though the grassy glen, nor coulds't thou have heard one creature cry."

Revelations says "he hath a vesture dipped in blood" and "out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword" and "he treadeth the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of almighty God." Is ther really any difference here?

In considering the question of violence one also has to take into account that Pentheus was himself violently repressing the cult, chaining the women in prison and declaring that he would stone Dionysus human form to death upon capture: "And if happily ye catch him, bring him hither to me in chains, to be stoned to death". This then sets the tragic confrontation in poetic justice which must lead to death as it does also in the Crucifixion, with justice only being fulfilled in the awesome destruction of the Day of Requital. For all his portrayal as a violent God, Dionysus settles for one sacrificial victim only in the judgement, while in Armageddon, God commits genocide.

Dionysus was right when he said he was a gentle god for all his violence at the climax "at last a God most terrible, for all his gentleness to man". Despite his violence to opposition, Dionysus is repeatedly described as Lord of peace just as Jesus was: "The joy of our god, the son of Zeus is in banquets, his delights in peace, that giver of riches and nurse divine of youth". He is also, like Jesus, egalitarian, giving the communion wine "both to rich and poor alike".

Implicit in the Dionysian tradition is the verdant flowering of fertility in the vegetation God; "crown thyself with ivy, burst forth, burst forth with blossoms fair of green convolvulus, and with the boughs of oak and pine join in the Bacchic revelry".

This is explicitly to arise from a complementation between Dionysus and Demeter which echoes the idea that Dionysus was present at the eucharistic sacred repast of the epoptea the core of the Eleusian mysteries: "Two things there are, young prince that hold first rank among men, the Goddess Demeter, that is the Earth - call her which name thou please; she is that feedeth men with solid food; and as her counterpart came this God ... who discovered the juice of the grape and introduced it to mankind, stilling thereby the grief that mortals suffer from."

This emphasizes once again that Dionysus, despite being portrayed in myth as the fifth Lord of reality, son of Zeus born from his thigh is in fact the ancient consort of the fertility Goddess in the form of visionary and verdant chaos.

This theme is echoed in a deeply woven motif of patriarchal reproductive rite being undone by the Dionysian fertility cult in the manner of the ancient Goddess "and in the midst of each revel-rout the brimming wine-bowl stands, and one by one they steal away to lonely spots to gratify their lust, pretending forsooth they are maenads bent on sacrifice, though it is Aphrodite they are placing before the Bacchic god". This correctly indicates that we have a fertility Goddess cult incipient within the Dionysus cult in the manner of Inanna and Dumuzzi.

The same tension tore apart ancient Israel as the whoring in the same high places and under every green tree in the rape of the sanctuaries and the destruction of the Asherah. "And he brought out the grove (asherah) from the house of the Lord, without Jerusalem, unto the brook Kidron, and burned it and stamped it small to powder, and cast the powder thereof upon the graves of the children of the people. One could say Pentheus' fate is Josiah's lament - the looking-glass world.

This theme is made all the more odd by the frankly Dionysian character of sections of Isaiah especially the pivotal bridegroom's anointing passage 61 which is the "planting of the Lord ... as the earth bringeth forth her bud and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth" and 63 "Who is this that comth from Edom with dyed garments from Bozra, travelling in the greatness of his strength? ... Wherefore art thy red in thy apparel and thy garment like him that treadeth in the wine fat?" This kind of imagery attests to the continuing influence of the Dionysian cultural tradition on Jewish imagery despite their extreme reluctance to admit it.

Teiresias reminds Pentheus of the basic question as follows: "It is not Dionysus that will force chastity on women in their love; but it is what we should consider, whether chastity is part of their nature for good and all,; for if it is, no really modest maid will fall 'mid Bacchic mysteries." This of course goes right to the heart of the matter. Should women be trusted to exercise their own reproductive freedom or should they be sequestered, "seizing and binding them hand and foot in the public gaol" to keep them chaste at the will and might of men? What is natural and what is right? In this sense it follows the sociobiological dilemma of the Renewal.

Bacchae is the cutting edge of this violent reproductive conflict. The sacrifice of male spies is part of this cutting edge which is still unresolved ethically, even in this day of genetic fingerprinting.

When Pentheus has Dionysus bound. Dionysus says of the rite "darkness lends solemnity" but Pentheus retorts "Calculated to entrap and corrupt women", to which Dionysus responds "Day too for that matter may discover shame", but this incites Pentheus "This vile quibbling settles thy punishment".

Notably, when Dionysus is captured by Pentheus it is to the Goddess that the maenads appeal rises "O holiness, queen among the gods, sweeping on golden pinion o'er the Earth! Dos't hear the words of Pentheus ...?" At the beginning of the play this link is specifically reinforced "joining heart and soul in Bacchic revelry on the hills, purified from every sin; ovserving the rites of Cybele the mighty mother and brandishing the thyrsus ..."

Two stunning precursors to Acts indicate that Paul had Dionysus clearly in mind when he spake of Jesus are the loosening of the bands in jail "all these have loosed their bonds ... the chains fell off their feet of their own accord and doors flew open without man's hand to help" and likewise not kicking against the goad when Pentheus resolves to lead his army against the bacchanals of the god: "I would rather do him sacrifice than in a fury kick against the pricks".

When Pentheus binds Dionysus the god warns him requesting he does not do as reason addressing madness, and noting he has no knowledge of the life he is leading and that his very existence has now become a mystery to him.

When Dionysus also escapes his bonds, the maenads are trembling and prostrate as the women of Galilee were before before pronouncing the exaltation. Dionysus pronounces a passage very similar to certain gnostic descriptions of the Crucifixion: "he thinks he bound me whereas he never touched nor caught hold of me, but fed himself on fancy.' Pentheus then exposes himself utterly by trying to kill the phantom of Dionysus with a sword, further sealing his tragic fate.

The "Second Treatise of the Great Seth", a revelation dialogue allegedly delivered by Jesus, says "It was another, their father who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another on whom they placed the crown of thorns,. But I was rejoicing in the height ... and I was laughing at their ignorance." (Robinson 365, Pagels 1979 91).

Of course the climax is tragic derangement. Agave herself tears Pentheus limb from limb and carries back the pieces to her husband still in a delirium thinking him to be an animal trophy for dedication. Dionysus, when challenged by Agave: "Gods should not let their passion sink to man's level" replies "long ago Zeus ordained it thus". This raises another deep question. Is this violence all a manifestation of the father God, just as Jesus' sacrifice, Armageddon and the final, awful Day of Judgement are all the Father's divine or atrocious will? Is this male combat myth ever going to end?

The play ends with the essential insight concerning imposed order, expectation and the uncertain synchronicity of karma: "Many are the forms the heavenly will assumes and many a thing the gods fulfil contrary to all hope; that which was expected is not brought to pass, while for the unlooked for, heaven finds out a way."