A Prolegomena to the Bacchae of Euripides

Written by on November 5th, 2013. Subject: Literature. Filed in Criticism, about Euripides Bacchae Tragedy

|||Grene, David, and Richmond Lattimore. Greek Tragedies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.|||

Bacchus and Ariadne

I am Dionysus, the son of Zeus,
come back to Thebes, this land where I was born.
My mother was Cadmus’ daughter, Semele by name,
midwived by fire, delivered by the lightning’s blast

And here I stand, a god incognito,
disguised as man, beside the stream of Dirce
and the waters of Ismenus. There before the palace
I see my lightning-married mother’s grave,
and there upon the ruins of her shattered house
the living fire of Zeus still smolders on
in deathless witness of Hera’s violence and rage
against my mother. ll. 1-10.

Interpreting the Bacchae as a literary work of art is difficult. It is difficult because it is not at all clear at the outset what sort of character Dionysus is, and whether we ought to take his side or not. His bacchantes, after all, have abandoned civilized life and have set themselves to roaming the hills in mad revelry. They mistake men for lions and prefer to nurse wild animals rather than their own young. And as for Dionysus himself, he seems vindictive and callused: he is “more like Judas; he fondles the man whom he means to kill,”1 and his own cousin at that.

But we must be careful to so quickly side with Pentheus. For while “it is not hard to feel from the first that Pentheus is right in trying to suppress it [the behavior of the bacchantes], and right in denying the divinity of Dionysus,”2 still we must engage the play not as a catalogue of events, but as a poem whose ideas have “meaning for life.”3 It is no uncouth thing to paint a picture of vice so long as the vice is not painted as virtue. And poetry, as with all art, has in it an experience which cannot remove itself from its moral effects; “ravings are bad art as well as bad sense, and attractive dressings of bad ideas in beautiful words and measures are worse than bad art; they are a prostitution of art.”4 More to the point, “if Dionysus is not fit for worship, and Pentheus, merely as a good and wise man who protests, is dragged to ruin, then according to Aristotle’s canon the play is not good art: rather it is simply disgusting.”5

For the Bacchae to be a proper tragedy it must, according to Aristotle, have within it a chain of events, led on by an internal necessity, that form a unified whole. And while it is arguable that Euripides cannot readily be fit within the Aristotelian model of tragedy, still, the general tragic movement in this case seems consistent. As we read the Bacchae it is our task as critics to interpret the necessity of each scene and to give a general explication of why it is necessary for the unity of the action. This task extends to the critical judgement of common misinterpretations of the text as well, since these misinterpretations often have, as their foundation, a misunderstanding of the facts of the play. Three commonly held notions about the Bacchae which I wish to contend are 1) that the primary ὕβρις of the play belongs to Pentheus; 2) that the punishment which Dionysus exacts is more severe than in other tragedies; and 3) that Dionysus appearing as a man is peculiar and without precedent in Greek literature.

It is curious that much of the discussion about tragic ὕβρις in the Bacchae revolves around the exchange between Dionysus and Pentheus. Somehow, we are to believe, that it is the outrage or disbelief of Dionysus by Pentheus which earns him his death. This same disbelief, we must remember, which Dionysus met and overcame throughout Asia Minor, and with similar characters. Critics have rationalized this by reminding us that Pentheus was so ready to condemn what he himself secretly desired, and that “the motives we are readiest to see in others are sometimes the index of our own character, and this trait may lead us to feel that all is not well with Pentheus’ soul.”6 and then to say, with a rather formal and final tone that “Pentheus has posed as the champion of σωφροσύνη, but now he stands revealed.”7 Or elsewhere the outrage of Pentheus’ disbelief is diminished with the suggestion that perhaps Euripides “felt profoundly that human life is tragic because there is a malign power, such as was Dionysus of the myths, which a man can thus easily and thus unwittingly stir up his undoing,”8 and therefore Pentheus was right all along.9 Still far from being coherent, these interpretations remove from the play all of its tragic force. We are not left, as we ought in tragedy, with the recognition of fault and the weight of its consequences.

But if the tragic ὕβρις does not belong to Pentheus, to whom could it belong? The ὕβρις that dominates the play, and which ultimately causes the tragic downfall of the house of Cadmus is that of Agave and the other sisters of Semele. We are told as much by Dionysus himself when he opens the play. After Dionysus quickly asserts his divinity, he turns our attention to his mother’s tomb which stands near the ruins of his maternal home. It is about this effigy of his mother, which he notes in passing still burns from the “ἀθάνατον Ἥρας μητέρ᾽ εἰς ἐμὴν ὕβριν (deathless outrage of Hera to my mother),”10 that the play revolves. And indeed, after giving an account of his travels and how he had revealed himself and his rites the Asians, Dionysus begins to recount to us his reason for returning to Thebes. We are told that Thebes is the first of all Greece to be excited to his bacchic revels. But more than that, we are given insight into why Dionysus has excited Thebes: “ἐπεί μ᾽ ἀδελφαὶ μητρός, ἃς ἥκιστα χρῆν, Διόνυσον οὐκ ἔφασκον ἐκφῦναι Διός, Σεμέλην δὲ νυμφευθεῖσαν ἐκ θνητοῦ τινος ἐς Ζῆν᾽ ἀναφέρειν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν λέχους, Κάδμου σοφίσμαθ᾽, ὧν νιν οὕνεκα κτανεῖν Ζῆν᾽ ἐξεκαυχῶνθ᾽, ὅτι γάμους ἐψεύσατο (since the sisters of my mother, of whom it least necessary, do not affirm that Dionysus is born of Zeus. But Semele having been wed to some mortal brought the fault of her bed to Zeus, the cunning of Cadmus–because of which they boasted that Zeus killed her, since she deceived the marriage rites.).”11 It would seem that the need to affirm his identity as a god is due in part because of the blasphemies against him by his own aunts.12 For this outrage, we are told, Dionysus “πᾶν τὸ θῆλυ σπέρμα Καδμείων, ὅσαι γυναῖκες ἦσαν, [ἐξέμηνε] δωμάτων (has driven mad from their homes all the female seed of Cadmus, as many women as there were).”13 And still more, we are told by Dionysus what it is he hopes to accomplish by this. Apparently, the reason why he has excited the women of Thebes is not out of some justified sense of revenge. Instead, it is so that the city might learn, even if it is unwilling, that he is indeed divine. And the way in which he will do this is by showing that the pronouncements against his mother were slander.14 This point warrants repeating: it is in defense of his mother that Dionysus has come; and it is for this that Dionysus has made mad the women of Thebes, which is the event upon which the rest of the play depends. It is the ὕβρις of the sisters of Semele, particularly that of Agave which Dionysus must punish.

As for Pentheus, and even Cadmus, Dionysus finds fault in them since they remain indifferent to the outrage against Dionysus’ mother Semele. The blame seems the fuller on Cadmus since “οὖν γέρας τε καὶ τυραννίδα Πενθεῖ δίδωσι θυγατρὸς ἐκπεφυκότι (in fact, he gave both honors and power to Penthus, having been born of his daughter).” Pentheus, it seems, is given the least blame of the entire house, at least until his second confrontation and denial of Dionysus.15

The second point upon which I wish to touch is whether Dionysus metes out appropriate punishments. That the Bacchae seems reprehensible to us at first is not because of any excess in punishment but because of the nearness of the punisher. Unlike other tragedies whose divine retribution moves ἐκ σκηνῆς, Dionysus introduces himself to us and tells us plainly what it is he will do, and why. His presence is no abstract concept, and therefore his punishment seems less of fate than of vengeance. The same cannot be said of other other tragedies whose divine agents are felt but not seen: we know nothing about the mind of Zeus as he orders the punishment of Prometheus (except, perhaps, that his heart is hard as all whose power is so newly won), nor of the fates as they harry Orestes; still less do we know what divine agent willed the fate of Oedipus as he pressed the Oracle of Delphi. And as for the justice of the punishment: it no more severe than elsewhere in Tragedy, less so, even, than some of Euripides’ other plays. Objectively, there is nothing unusual or excessive about the nature of Dionysus’ punishment.

Yet, if the punishment is not excessive, can we also say that it is fitting? That is, is there an underlining ‘poetic-justice’ about the whole affair, which is neither too lenient nor to excessive? There seems to be a definite parallel between the outrage committed against Dionysus and the punishment which he exacts. Agave is guilty of denying the identity of her nephew and also of insulting Semele and why she was killed. Agave denies that the death of Semele is because of the ὕβρις of Hera, and instead goes about asserting that Semele was justly killed. As such, her punishment is that she should misidentify her son as a lion, and to parade his head about Thebes as if that killing too was honorable.

The guilt of Cadmus is much harder to get at. Because he has taken up the Thyrsus we are confused about what fault Dionysus finds with him. He is, after all, commended in the opening lines by Dionysus for erecting the tomb of Semele—“αἰνῶ δὲ Κάδμον, ἄβατον ὃς πέδον τόδε τίθησι (but I commend Cadmus, who has made this ground untrodden)”16—and we hear nothing from him but a willingness to accept the divinity of Dionysus. But he is passive in his acceptance of Dionysus. Cadmus has refused to defend the honor of his own daughter, Semele, against those who would dishonor her—and therefore he has failed to defend the divinity of Dionysus. Instead, he has given the prizes and power of Thebes to Pentheus, the son of one who has outraged Dionysus grievously. Cadmus claims to follow Dionysus but he aligns himself with those who are the enemies of the god. His punishment, therefore, is to lead those whom he despises into war against those he loves.

Pentheus, it would seem, has the least ὕβρις of the three. He is of the general population of Thebes who must simply learn thoroughly that Dionysus is a god. Dionysus punishes Pentheus primarily for his unwillingness to pay him reverence. His death is simply the occurrence of Dionysus’ earlier claim that “ἢν δὲ Θηβαίων πόλις ὀργῇ σὺν ὅπλοις ἐξ ὄρους βάκχας ἄγειν ζητῇ, ξυνάψω μαινάσι στρατηλατῶν. (but if the city of the Thebans should with anger seek to lead my Bacchants from the mountain, I will join with my maenads generaling them.)”17 Also, that Pentheus should die is less tragic and less punitive than that suffered by Agave or Cadmus—is it not worse to murder one’s own blood, or to betray your country, than it is to simply die? It is important to understand that his death, while appropriate, comes about only indirectly because of his irreverence; it is Agave and not Dionysus whom we should blame for the death of Pentheus.

The last point about the Bacchae which must be cleared up is the use of disguise in the Bacchae. That a god would manifest himself in the image of a man or beast is not unprecedented in Greek myth, and therefore it is not surprising or unusual. The paradox of Dionysus as the god-man is undermined by the relatively common appearance of the gods as something other than themselves; the theme is consistent enough not to warrant any special justification in the Bacchae. What is unusual is that Dionysus makes much ado about the transformation throughout the play. This, I think, is why critics have focused so intently on it. But even this can be explained simply and with no ill-effects through two different arguments, although both require some rationalization.

The necessity of the disguise of Dionysus in the play may be due to the fact that often when gods disguise themselves among men they are still perceived by the more perceptive of the greeks. This is the most true of those who pay that god proper reverence. Odysseus, for example, has a knack for recognizing the presence of some god or dæmon throughout his travels. He continually perceives the presence of Athena, and his escape from Poseidon is due largely to his perception and supplication of a river god. But the Bacchae is not about whether there are those who follow Dionysus, but a judgement about those who do not. Should Dionysus be revealed for who he is among his Bacchantes, still Thebes, much less Agave and perhaps Pentheus, would not acknowledge that he is a god. More importantly, they would not be brought to the knowledge that he is a god because he would be unable to show them. And, should he be revealed too early for what he is, the play cannot unfold, and there could not be a resolution.

Similar to that point is the possibility of familial recognition between Dionysus and the House of Cadmus. A common theme throughout Greek literature is the recognition of one’s own blood. It is not unreasonable to think that Dionysus as the Lydian priest would be recognized if not by Pentheus, at least by Cadmus, who is his grandfather. Accounting for these two things, perhaps Euripides was too keen on having Dionysus insist on the opaqueness of his disguise. A good reading of the Bacchae hinges on correctly interpreting the events which make up the play, giving an account of their necessity, and explaining how it relates to the unity of the work as a whole. The first, and most important task is to determine what action puts into motion the rest of the play. We are then able to relate the various parts of the play by their necessary connection to this one action, which, in the Bacchae, is the revealing of Dionysus as a god through the defense of Semele. The most important determination which we must make is that the ὕβρις which prompts Dionysus to treat Thebes the way he does is Agave’s, and not of Pentheus. Dionysus has come to deal specifically with the outrage of Agave against his mother through which he intends to reveal himself to the rest of the city, and indeed, every mortal, as a god. The second most important determination is that although the death of Pentheus seems at first gruesome and excessive, after examining the facts, it is given proper context and seems appropriate to the play. The same seems to be true of the punishments given to Agave and Cadmus. Lastly, the determination that the disguise of Dionysus is simply the modus operandi of the play—the means through which his defense of Semele is most ably accomplished—and to a similar degree as in other Greek literature, suggests to us that the Greek mind would not see anything particularly peculiar about it. These three things, when properly considered, give to us a framework from which we can interpret the play and assign layers of meaning to the text.

About B. R. Mullikin

B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. Glover, M. R. (1929). The Bacchae. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 49 IS -, 82–88. The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies. p. 82. 

  2. Barnard, A. S. C. (1933). The Problem of the “Bacchae.” Greece & Rome, 2(6), 170–172. Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association. p. 170. 

  3. ibid 

  4. ibid 

  5. Glover, p. 171. 

  6. Barnard, p. 172. 

  7. ibid 

  8. Glover p. 3. 

  9. We are told later by the same critic that as the play progresses “the manifestations become more menacing as they proceed, beginning with a very attractive exaltation of the feelings of joy and emancipation, and ending in complete inhibition of the normal powers of perception and rational control.” (Glover, p. 84.) The sentiment seems pithy enough, but it carries with it an entire body of problems, the least of which is that it reduces the play to a sort of cheap horror thrill. We are to endure the hardship of Pentheus not for the purgation of pity and fear through which we also learn to admire and seek after the Good, but out of some morbid curiosity or because we, like sadists, take pleasure in another’s pain. The mistake, it seems, arises from the preconceived notion that the play revolves around Dionysus punishing Pentheus and the awareness that Dionysus has already put into motion through the maddening of the women the very events which would lead Pentheus to outrage Dionysus. 

  10. Bacchae, l. 10. 

  11. Bacchae, ll. 26-31. 

  12. One could spend a long time speculating about why it was that Semele was so despised and put down by her own sisters. Whatever the reason, it would seem that its cause was spite, or something like it. After all, as Dionysus said, you would expect such sentiments least of all from them. 

  13. Bacchae, ll. 35-36. 

  14. δεῖ γὰρ πόλιν τήνδ᾽ ἐκμαθεῖν, κεἰ μὴ θέλει, ἀτέλεστον οὖσαν τῶν ἐμῶν βακχευμάτων, Σεμέλης τε μητρὸς ἀπολογήσασθαί μ᾽ ὕπερ φανέντα θνητοῖς δαίμον᾽ ὃν τίκτει Διί. (for it is necessary that the city should learn thoroughly, even if they should be unwilling, that since they are uninitiated into my bacchic rites, that I defend my mother and for that show myself, a god, to be divine to mortals, whom Semele bore to Zeus). Bacchae, ll. 39-42. 

  15. One could make a strong case that the original punishment which Dionysus metes out to Pentheus is accomplished in full with the destruction of his palace, whether real or imagined. (we are told by Dionysus in his dialogue with Coryphaeus that “πρὸς θεὸν γὰρ ὢν ἀνὴρ ἐς μάχην ἐλθεῖν ἐτόλμησε. ἥσυχος δ᾽ ἐκβὰς ἐγὼ δωμάτων ἥκω πρὸς ὑμᾶς, Πενθέως οὐ φροντίσας (for being a man he ventures to come to a god for a fight. And I have come leaving the house quietly to you, having no thought of Pentheus).” Dionysus seems content with his punishment toward Pentheus. Going further, we have circumstantial evidence that he intended at this point no further harm to Pentheus: “πρὸς σοφοῦ γὰρ ἀνδρὸς ἀσκεῖν σώφρον᾽ εὐοργησίαν (for to honor the soundness of a gentle temper is wise).” Bacchae, ll. 635-641.

  16. Bacchae, ll. 9-10. 

  17. Bacchae, ll. 50-52.