We are entering the final week of The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours an excellent on line class from Harvardx, hosted by my personal hero Gregory Nagy.
A “bacchae” is a frenzied female follower of the god Bacchus, also known as Dionysus. It is also a famous Greek tragedy by Euripides. One of the major characters in the play ends up dressed like a bacchae. This is King Pentheus of Thebes.
Pentheus had an aunt named Semele. Semele use to brag that she was the consort of the king of the gods; Zeus. For her boast she got blasted with a thunderbolt. Well at least that is what the Thebans believed. One day a “man” arrives on the scene with a chorus of women from Asia Minor. He looks remarkable like Pentheus. This should have been a clue to the king. In fact, this man was Dionysus; the thrice-born god of wine and Pentheus’ first cousin. The deceased Aunt Semele was in fact the consort of Zeus. Dionysus’ embroyic body survived the fire that consumed his mother and survived.
Things get really confusing at this point in the play. I will try to explain what comes next, meanwhile be aware that by the end of the play Pentheus is ripped to pieces by his frienzied mother and surviving aunts. (As an aside, legend says that at the end of his life the playwright Euripides was ripped to pieces by his patron’s dogs.)
Here is what happens between Dionysius’ arrival and Pentheus’ death. Pentheus refuses to recognize Dionysius as prodigal cousin or as a god. As a consequence the women of the royal household, go crazy and run off into the wild. Professor Nagy point out in Chapter 21 of “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours” at section 31 that the women of Thebes, the Theban bacchae “have lost control of themselves. But that does not mean that they are “out of control…. They are still under control, but the controller is now the god.” At 21§32 he adds, “So, the possession of a woman’s mind by Dionysus is a positive experience when the woman possessed is performing a ritual”.
Greek Myths are often associated with particular rituals. Ancient Greek tragedies are often based on myths. So plays often explain rituals. Hence The Eumenides explains the trial by juror system. Hippolytus explains initiation rituals in a town on the outskirts of Athens and Oedipus at Colonus explains rituals in the suburbs of Athens. So the Bacchae is explaining rituals too. What wasn't clear to me and unfortunately wasn't clear to Pentheus ; is that the Bacchae is demonstrating two rituals at once.
The Ancient Greeks staged tradegies with a handful of actors (if that ) and a chorus. The chorus could represent the old men of a city, a group of woman concerned for the heroine or any other sort of homogenous peoples. The chorus interacted with the actors and often voiced the questions they audience might have. If you are a “Frankie Fan”; if you ever saw “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” you know how a chorus works because the entire audience is the chorus for that film.
The women who came from Asia Minor with Dionysus are the chorus for the play. This play, this myth explains the orgins of the annual festival where the tragedies were performed. This is the first Greek tragedy. To use Nagy phraseology the women; “ are in a mental state of equilibrium or balance when they participate in the rituals of Dionysian theater by performing the myth that motivates these rituals.” ( 21.33)
With Dionysus help, Pentheus dresses like a bacchae, so he can observe their rituals. His mind befuddled by the god, Pentheus some how doesn’t realize that the chorus of women he is going to spy on . “ is not the chorus of the Bacchae. It is not the chorus of Asiatic women who have followed Dionysus to Thebes - and who are the ritually correct chorus of the drama. Rather, this would-be chorus consists of all the women of Thebes. They have left the urban civilization of Thebes and have relocated themselves in the wilderness of the mountains,”
The women on the mountain are reinacting another myth and another much darker ritual. Long ago Dionysus was called Zagreus. He was the son of Zeus and heir to the throne of the universe. The Titans, the elder gods enticed the child away from safety ripped him to pieces and ate his flesh. This is the ritual that Pentheus sees reinacted upon Mt Cithaeron. When the women see him, the result is common to the uninitiated that trespass on the mysteries; death. Pentheus is ripped apart on the exact same spot his Uncle Acteon was ripped apart and eaten by his own hunting hounds.
The play ends with the Pentheus’ mother accompanied by the other women proudly marching into town to show off “this lion's head, my booty from the chase.” As the frenzy fades, it is left up to Pentheus and Dionysus’ grandfather to explain the will of the gods.