Monday, July 7, 2014

Greek god punishes skeptics in Euripides' 'Bacchae'

The premise of the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek tragedy "Bacchae" is the god Dionysus's punishment of the inhabitants of Thebes for denying his divinity. He causes all Theban women to go into a mad frenzy and to run into the cold mountains, drinking wine, dancing to flutes and drums, ripping apart cows with their bare hands, and making the contextually odd declaration that Dionysus is a beneficent god of pleasure who helps people forget their sorrows. Pentheus, the new king of Thebes and a nephew of Dionysus's mortal mother, is annoyed by the strange cult and refuses to acknowledge the god. Dionysus appears as a mortal man to specifically punish Pentheus, and here the play begins.

The action is interspersed with quasi-philosophical arguments in which Dionysus' apologists and deniers alike are made to look slightly ridiculous. The chorus members are true believers and insist that worshippers, despite their bizarre and immoderate behavior, are pious and pure. They also make somewhat contradictory comments about wine's effect on sexual desire. The blind prophet Tiresias exaggerates that drink is the only way that humans can mollify their sorrows and he makes the dubious claim that alcohol doesn't spark sexual desire in chaste women. The cult's nemesis Pentheus pontificates from a different angle but he is not a credible moral teacher either. He alleges that Dionysian worshippers are sexually licentious and therefore deserving of imprisonment. Having heard a rumor of a male stranger who has come to town heralding the god (this stranger would be the god Dionysus himself in human form), and without even having seen him or knowing his name, Pentheus wants him executed.

When the servants of Pentheus arrive to capture Dionysus, he surrenders laughing, warning them not to try to subdue him any further. They ignore him. Dionysus releases himself from the chains, shatters Pentheus' palace in a storm-like event, and mocks the king by causing him to stab at a phantom image of an opponent. He also magically releases his worshippers from their chains.

The second punishment for Pentheus is humiliation. Dionysus prods the king to admit that he'd like to watch the Theban women in their drunken and possibly erotic dances. Officially Pentheus only wishes to put a stop to their suspected misbehavior, but there are overtones that his curiosity is not entirely for strategic purposes. Dionysus warns him that the frenzied women will kill him on sight, so - first reducing the king's mental clarity - he coaches Pentheus in disguising himself in women's clothes. He then speaks to the chorus and admits that his real goal is simply to have Pentheus embarrass himself in front of Thebes by parading in a dress. This may be in revenge for Pentheus' previous mockery of Dionysus as an effeminate man.

Dionysus's third and most severe attack is to place Pentheus at the top of a pine tree where he is totally vulnerable and attacked by the mad worshippers. His own mother, not recognizing him despite his protests, participates in his dismemberment and sticks his head on a pike. When she returns to the city, her father Cadmus gently wakens her from her fantasy and helps her to see that the head belongs to her son and that she has murdered him. The tragic death of the king affects the entire family.


The tale contains several important moral lessons. To the contemporary Greek mind, the surface interpretation may have been that of a cautionary tale about piety displaying the utter dependence of humans on the angry whims of the gods. There is, however, a deeper lesson in the extended example of how evil begets evil. Zeus impregnated Semele and killed her; her misfortune was compounded by her family's disbelief in her story; her divine son Dionysus goads the disbelieving king into deeper heresy, then congratulates him for fighting evil (drunken revelry) with evil (deceit), when the compliment properly belongs to the god himself for his cruelty and duplicity in leading the king to a hideous death. There is also a subtle warning at the end of the play about the risks of being overly concerned with honor. It comes to light that Pentheus had been trusted by his grandfather Cadmus as a protector of the old man's honor to the extent that he would initiate violence against anyone who had offended him. It cannot be foreign to the royal family, then, that the gods also have a sense of honor and will destroy mortals who ignore, deny, or malign them.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 4, 2011.

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