DIONYSUS: divine son of Zeus and Semele, also
called BROMIUS or BACCHUS
TIRESIAS: an old blind prophet
CADMUS: grandfather of both Dionysus and Pentheus, an old man
PENTHEUS: young king of Thebes, grandson of Cadmus, cousin of Dionysus
AGAVE: mother of Pentheus, daughter of Cadmus, sister of Semele
FIRST MESSENGER a cattle herder
SECOND MESSENGER: an attendant on Pentheus
Soldiers and attendants around Pentheus
CHORUS OF BACCHAE: worshippers of Dionysus who have followed him from Asia, also called MAENADS or BACCHANTS.
The following names are frequently mentioned but are not speaking characters in the play.
Actaeon: hunter destroyed by his own dogs as
punishment for boasting that he was a better hunter than goddess
Artemis, son of Autonoe (one of Cadmus’ daughters).
Aphrodite: goddess of erotic love and sexuality.
Autonoe: sister of Agave, Ino, and Semele, daughter of Cadmus, mother of Actaeon
Cithaeron: sacred mountain close to Thebes.
Ino: daughter of Cadmus, sister of Agave and Semele
Semele: human daughter of Cadmus, mother of Dionysus.
Thebes: a major Greek city, where the Greek race originated.
Tmolus: sacred mountain in Asia Minor, associated with Dionysus.
A thyrsus (pl. thyrsoi) is a hollow plant stalk, usually decorated with ivy, and carried as a symbol of Dionysus in the dancing celebrations (where it can acquire magical powers).
[Scene: The Greek city of Thebes, outside the royal palace. Dionysus, appearing as young man, is alone, with the palace behind him, its main doors facing the audience. He speaks directly to the audience]
DIONYSUS: I’ve arrived here in the land of Thebes, I, Dionysus, son of Zeus, born to him from Semele, Cadmus’ daughter, delivered by a fiery midwife — Zeus’ lightning flash. Yes, I’ve changed my form from god to human, appearing here at these streams of Dirce, the waters of Ismarus. I see my mother’s tomb — for she was wiped out by that lightning bolt. It’s there, by the palace, with that rubble, the remnants of her house, still smoldering from Zeus’ living fire — Hera’s undying outrage against my mother. But I praise Cadmus. He’s made his daughter’s shrine a sacred place. I have myself completely covered it with leafy shoots of grape-bearing vines. I’ve left the fabulously wealthy East, lands of Lydians and Phrygians, Persia’s sun-drenched plains, walled towns in Bactria. I’ve moved across the bleak lands of the Medes, through rich Arabia, all Asian lands, along the salt-sea coast, through those towns with their beautifully constructed towers, full of barbarians and Greeks all intermingled. Now I’ve come to Thebes, city of Greeks, only after I’ve set those eastern lands dancing in the mysteries I established, making known to men my own divinity. Thebes is the first city of the Greeks where I’ve roused people to shout out my cries, with this deerskin draped around my body, this ivy spear, a thyrsus, in my hand. For my mother’s sisters have acted badly, something they, of all people, should avoid. They boasted aloud that I, Dionysus, was no child of Zeus, claiming Semele, once she was pregnant by some mortal man, attributed her bad luck in bed to Zeus, a story (they said) made up to trick Cadmus. Those sisters state that’s why Zeus killed her, because she lied about the man she’d slept with. So I’ve driven those women from their homes, in a mad fit — they now live in the mountains, out of their minds. I’ve made them put on costumes, outfits appropriate for my mysteries. All Theban offspring — or, at least, all women — I’ve driven in a frenzy from their houses. Now they sit out there among the rocks, underneath green pine trees, no roof above, Cadmus’ daughters in their company as well. For this city must learn, though against its will, that it has yet to be initiated into my Dionysian rites. Here I plead the cause of my own mother, Semele, appearing as a god to mortal men, the one she bore to Zeus. Now Cadmus, the old king, has just transferred his power, his royal authority, to Pentheus, his daughter’s son, who, in my case at least, fights against the gods, prohibiting me all sacrificial offerings. When he prays, he chooses to ignore me. For this neglect I’ll demonstrate to him, to all in Thebes, that I was born a god. Once these things here have been made right, I’ll move on somewhere else, to some other land, revealing who I am. But if Thebans in this city, in their anger, try to make those Bacchic women leave, to drive them from the mountains forcibly, then I, commander of these Maenads, will fight them. That’s why I’ve transformed myself, assumed a mortal shape, altered my looks, so I resemble any human being.
[Enter the Chorus of Bacchae, dressed in ritual deerskin, carrying small drums like tambourines]
But you there, you women who’ve left Tmolus, backbone of Lydia, my band of worshippers, whom I’ve led here from the barbarians, my comrades on the road and when we rest, take up your drums, those instruments of yours from Phrygian cities, first invented by mother Rhea and myself. Move round here, beat those drums by Pentheus’ palace, let Cadmus’ city see you, while I go, in person, to the clefts of Mount Cithaeron, to my Bacchae, to join in their dancing.
CHORUS [singing and dancing] FIRST VOICE: From Asia, from sacred Tmolus I’ve come to dance, to move swiftly in my dance — for Bromius — sweet and easy task, to cry out in celebration, hailing great god Bacchus.
SECOND VOICE: Who’s in the street? Who’s there? Who? Let him stay inside out of our way. Let every mouth be pure, completely holy, speak no profanities. In my hymn I celebrate our old eternal custom, hailing Dionysus.
THIRD VOICE: O, blessed is the man, the fortunate man who knows the rituals of the gods, who leads a pious life, whose spirit merges with these Bacchic celebrations, frenzied dancing in the mountains, our purifying rites — one who reveres these mysteries from Cybele, our great mother, who, waving the thyrsus, forehead crowned with ivy, serves Dionysus.
FOURTH VOICE: On Bacchae! Bacchae, move! Bring home Bromius, our god, son of god, great Dionysus, from Phrygian mountains to spacious roads of Greece — Hail Bromius!
FIFTH VOICE: His mother dropped him early, as her womb, in forceful birth pangs, was struck by Zeus’ flying lightning bolt, a blast which took her life. Then Zeus, son of Cronos, at once hid him away in a secret birthing chamber, buried in his thigh, shut in with golden clasps, concealed from Hera.
SIXTH VOICE: Fates made him perfect. Then Zeus gave birth to him, the god with ox’s horns, crowned with wreaths of snakes — that’s why the Maenads twist in their hair wild snakes they capture.
SEVENTH VOICE: O Thebes, nursemaid of Semele, put on your ivy crown, flaunt your green yew, flaunt its sweet fruit! Consecrate yourselves to Bacchus, with stems of oak or fir, Dress yourselves in spotted fawn skins, trimmed with white sheep’s wool. As you wave your thyrsus, revere the violence it contains. All the earth will dance at once. Whoever leads our dancing — that one is Bromius! To the mountain, to the mountain, where the pack of women waits, all stung into a frenzy to leave their weaving shuttles, goaded on by Dionysus.
EIGHTH VOICE: O you dark chambers of the Curetes, you sacred caves in Crete, birthplace of Zeus, where the Corybantes in their caves, men with triple helmets, made for me this circle of stretched hide. In their wild ecstatic dancing, they mixed this drum beat with the sweet seductive tones of flutes from Phrygia, then gave it to mother Rhea, to beat time for the Bacchae, when they sang in ecstasy. Nearby, orgiastic satyrs, in ritual worship of the mother goddess, took that drum, then brought it into their biennial dance, bringing joy to Dionysus.
NINTH VOICE: He’s welcome in the mountains, when he sinks down to the ground, after the running dance, wrapped in his holy deerskin, hunting the goat’s blood, blood of the slain beast, devouring its raw flesh with joy, rushing off into the mountains, in Phrygia, in Lydia, leading the dance — Bromius — Evoë!
ALL: The land flows with milk, the land flows with wine, the land flows with honey from the bees. He holds the torch high, our leader, the Bacchic One, blazing flame of pine, sweet smoke like Syrian incense, trailing from his thyrsus. As he dances, he runs, here and there, rousing the stragglers, stirring them with his cries, thick hair rippling in the breeze. Among the Maenads’ shouts his voice reverberates: “On Bacchants, on! With the glitter of Tmolus, which flows with gold, chant songs to Dionysus, to the loud beat of our drums. Celebrate the god of joy with your own joy, with Phrygian cries and shouts! When sweet sacred pipes sound their rhythmic holy song, in time to the dancing wanderers, then to the mountains, on, on to the mountains.” Then the bacchanalian woman is filled with total joy — like a foal in pasture right beside her mother — her swift feet skip in playful dance. [Enter Tiresias, a very old blind man, dressed in clothing appropriate for the Dionysian ritual. He goes up to the palace door and knocks very aggressively]
TIRESIAS: [shouting] Where’s the servant on the door? You in there, tell Cadmus to get himself out of the house, Agenor’s lad, who came here from Sidon, then put up the towers of this Theban town. Go tell him Tiresias is waiting for him. He knows well enough why I’ve come for him. I’m an old man, and he’s even older, but we’ve agreed make ourselves a thyrsus, to put on fawn skins and crown our heads with garlands of these ivy branches.
[Enter Cadmus from the palace, a very old man, also dressed in clothing appropriate for the Dionysian ritual]
CADMUS: My dearest friend, I was inside the house. I heard your voice. I recognized it — the voice of a man truly wise. So I’ve come equipped with all this god stuff. We must praise him greatly, as much as we can, for this Dionysus, well, he’s my daughter’s child. Now he’s revealed himself a god to men. Where must I go and dance? Where do I get to move my feet and shake my old gray head? You must guide me, Tiresias, one old man leading another, for you’re the expert here. Oh, I’ll never tire of waving this thyrsus, day and night, striking the ground. What rapture! Now we can forget that we’re old men.
TIRESIAS: You feel the same way I do, then. For I’m young and going to try the dancing.
CADMUS: Shall we go up the mountain in a chariot?
TIRESIAS: The god would not then get complete respect.
CADMUS: So I’ll be your nursemaid — one old man taking charge of another one?
TIRESIAS: The god himself will get us to the place without our efforts.
CADMUS: Of all the city are we the only ones who’ll dance to honour Bacchus?
TIRESIAS: Yes, indeed, for we’re the only ones whose minds are clear. As for the others, well, their thinking’s wrong.
CADMUS: There’ll be a long wait. Take my hand.
TIRESIAS: [holding out his hand] Here. Take it — make a pair of it and yours.
CADMUS: I’m a mortal, so I don’t mock the gods.
TIRESIAS: To the gods we mortals are all ignorant. Those old traditions we got from ancestors, the ones we’ve had as long as time itself, no argument will ever overthrow, no matter what subtleties clever minds invent. Will someone say I show old age no respect, if I intend to dance with ivy on my head? Not at all, for the god makes no distinctions — whether the dancing is for young or old. He wants to gather honours from everyone, to be praised communally, without division.
CADMUS: Since you’re blind to daylight, Tiresias, I’ll be your seer, tell you what’s going on — Pentheus, that child of Echion, the one to whom I handed over power in this land, he’s coming here, to the house. He’s in a rush. He looks so flustered. What news will he bring?
[Enter Pentheus, with some armed attendants. At first he does not notice Cadmus and Tiresias, not until he calls attention to them] PENTHEUS: It so happens I’ve been away from Thebes, but I hear about disgusting things going on, here in the city — women leaving home for ridiculous Bacchic rituals, cavorting about in mountain shadows, with dances honouring some upstart god, this Dionysus, whoever he may be. The mixing bowls at the centre of their meetings are full of wine, and they creep off one by one to lonely spots to have sex with men, claiming they’re Maenads busy worshipping. But they rank Aphrodite, goddess of sexual desire, ahead of Bacchus. All the ones I’ve caught, my servants guard in the public prison, their hands chained up. All those who’re still away, I’ll chase down, hunt them from the mountains — and that includes Ino, Agave, who bore me to Echion, and Autonoe, Actaeon’s mother. Once I’ve clamped them all in iron fetters, I’ll quickly end this perverse nastiness, this Bacchic celebration. People say some stranger has arrived here, some wizard, a conjurer from the land of Lydia — with sweet-smelling hair in golden ringlets and Aphrodite’s charms in wine-dark eyes. He hangs around the young girls day and night, dangling in front of them his joyful mysteries. If I catch him in this city, I’ll stop him. He’ll make no more clatter with his thyrsus, or wave his hair around. I’ll chop off his head, slice it right from his body. This man claims that Dionysus is a god, alleging that once upon a time he was sewn up, stitched inside Zeus’ thigh — but Dionysus was burned to death, along with his mother, by that lightning flame, because she’d lied. She maintained that she’d had sex with Zeus. All this surely merits some harsh punishment, death by hanging. Whoever this stranger is, this insolence of his insults me.
[Noticing Cadmus and Tiresias for the first time]
Well, here’s something quite astonishing! I see Tiresias, our soothsayer, all dressed up in dappled fawn skins — my mother’s father, too! This is ridiculous. To take a thyrsus and jump around like this. [To Cadmus] You sir, I don’t like to see such arrant foolishness from your old age. Why not throw off that ivy? And, grandfather, why not let that thyrsus go?
[Turning to address Tiresias]
Tiresias, you’re the one who’s put him up to this. You want to bring in some new god for men, so you’ll be able to inspect more birds, and from his sacrifices make more money. If your gray old age did not protect you, you’d sit there in chains with all the Bacchae, for bringing in these evil ceremonies. Whenever women at some banquet start to enjoy the gleaming wine, I say there’s nothing healthy in their rituals.
CHORUS LEADER: That’s impiety! O stranger, have you no reverence for the gods, for Cadmus, who sowed that crop of men born from the earth? You’re the child of Echion — do you wish to bring your own family into disrepute?
TIRESIAS: When a man of wisdom has good occasion to speak out, and takes the opportunity, it’s not that hard to give an excellent speech. You’ve got a quick tongue and seem intelligent, but your words don’t make any sense at all. A fluent orator whose power comes from self-assurance and from nothing else makes a bad citizen, for he lacks sense. This man, this new god, whom you ridicule — it’s impossible for me to tell you just how great he’ll be in all of Greece. Young man, among human beings two things stand out preeminent, of highest rank. Goddess Demeter is one — she’s the earth (though you can call her any name you wish), and she feeds mortal people cereal grains. The other one came later, born of Semele — he came up with liquor from the grape, something to match the bread from Demeter, and introduced it among mortal men. When they take their fill of what streams off the vine, then unhappy mortals are released from pain. It grants them sleep, letting them forget their daily troubles. Apart from wine, there is no cure for human hardship. He, being a god, is poured out to the gods, so that human beings receive good things through his dispensation. You mock him. Why? Because he was sewn into Zeus thigh? Well, I’ll show you how this all makes sense. When Zeus grabbed him from the lightning flames, he brought the child to Olympus as a god. But Hera wished to throw him out of heaven. So Zeus, in a manner worthy of a god, came up with a cunning counter plan. From the sky which surrounds the earth, Zeus broke off a piece, shaped it like Dionysus, then gave that to Hera, as a hostage. The real child he gave to nymphs to raise, saving him from Hera’s jealousy. Over time people mixed up “sky” and “thigh,” saying he’d come from Zeus’s thigh, changing words, because he, a god, had once been hostage to goddess Hera. So they made up the tale. This god’s a prophet, too, for those rituals — the Bacchic celebrations and the madness — unleash considerable prophetic power. When the god enters the body fully, he makes those possessed by frenzy prophets. They speak of what’s to happen in the future. He also shares the work of war god Ares. For there are times an army all drawn up, with all its weapons, can shake with terror, before any man has set hand to his spear. Such madness comes from Dionysus. Some day you’ll see him on those rocks at Delphi, leaping with torches along the upper slopes, between those two mountain peaks there, brandishing and shaking his Bacchic wand, a great power in Greece. Trust me, Pentheus. Don’t be too confident a sovereign’s force controls men. If something seems right to you, but your mind’s diseased, don’t think that’s wisdom. So welcome this god into your country. Pour libations to him, then celebrate these Bacchic rites with garlands on your head. On women, where Aphrodite is concerned, Dionysus will not enforce restraint — such modesty you must seek in nature, where it already dwells. For any woman whose character is chaste won’t be defiled by Bacchic revelry. Don’t you see that? When there are many people at your gates, you’re happy. The city shouts your praises. It celebrates the name of Pentheus. The god, too, I think, derives great pleasure from being honoured. And so Cadmus, whom you mock, and I will crown our heads with ivy and will join the dancing. We’re an old gray team, but we must still dance. Your words will not convince me to fight the god, for you are mad — cruelly deluded. No drug can heal that ailment — in fact, some drug has caused it.
CHORUS LEADER: Old man, you’ve not disgraced Apollo with your words, and by honouring this Dionysus, a great god, you show your moderation.
CADMUS: My child, Tiresias has given you some good advice. You should live among us, not outside our traditions. Right now, you’re flying around — thinking, but not clearly. For if this man is not a god, as you claim, why not call him one? Why not tell a lie, a really good one? Then it will seem that some god has been born to Semele. We — and all our family — will win honour. Consider the dismal fate of Actaeon — torn to pieces in some mountain forest by blood-thirsty dogs he’d raised himself. He’d boasted he was better in the hunt than Artemis. Don’t suffer the same fate. Come here. Let me crown your head with ivy. Join us in giving honour to this god.
PENTHEUS: Keep your hand off me! Be off with you — go to these Bacchic rituals of yours. But don’t infect me with your madness. As for the one who’s acted as your teacher in this foolishness, I’ll bring him to justice.
[To his attendants]
One of you, go quickly to where this man, Tiresias, has that seat of his, the place where he inspects his birds. Take some levers, and knock it down. Demolish it completely. Turn the whole place upside down — all of it. Let his holy ribbons fly off in the winds. That way I’ll really do him damage. You others — go to the city, scour it to find this effeminate stranger, who corrupts women with some new disease, and thus infects our beds. If you get him, tie him up and bring him here for judgment, a death by stoning. That way he’ll see his rites in Thebes come to a bitter end.
[Exit Pentheus into the palace]
TIRESIAS: You unhappy man, you’ve no idea just what it is you’re saying. You’ve gone mad! Even before now you weren’t in your right mind. Let’s be off, Cadmus. We’ll pray to the god on Pentheus’ behalf, though he’s a savage, and for the city, too, so he won’t harm it. Come with me — bring the ivy-covered staff. See if you can help support my body. I’ll do the same for you. It would be shameful if two old men collapsed. No matter — for we must serve Bacchus, son of Zeus. But you, Cadmus, you should be more careful, or Pentheus will bring trouble in your home. I’m not saying this as a prophecy, but on the basis of what’s going on. A man who’s mad tends to utter madness.
[Exit Tiresias and Cadmus together on their way to the mountains]
CHORUS: Holiness, queen of the gods, Holiness, sweeping over earth on your wings of gold, do you hear what Pentheus says? Do you hear the profanities he utters, the insults against Bromius, child of Semele, chief god among all blessed gods, for those who wear their lovely garlands in a spirit of harmonious rejoicing? This is his special responsibility, to lead men together in the dance, to make them laugh as the flute plays, to bring all sorrows to an end, at the god’s sacrificial feast, when the liquid gleam of grapes arrives, when the wine bowl casts its sleep over ivy-covered feasting men.
Unbridled tongues and lawless folly come to an end only in disaster. A peaceful life of wisdom maintains tranquilly. It keeps the home united. Though gods live in the sky, from far away in heaven they gaze upon the deeds of men. But being clever isn’t wisdom. And thinking deeply on things isn’t suitable for mortal men. Our life is brief — that’s why the man who chases greatness fails to grasp what’s near at hand. That’s what madmen do, men who’ve lost their wits. That’s what I believe.
Would I might go to Cyprus, island of Aphrodite, where the Erotes, bewitching goddesses of love, soothe the hearts of humankind, or to Paphos, made rich and fertile, not by rain, but by the waters of a hundred flowing mouths of a strange and foreign river. Oh Bromius, Bromius, inspired god who leads the Bacchae, lead me away to lovely Peira, where the Muses dwell, or to Olympus’ sacred slopes, where the Graces live, Desire, too, where it’s lawful and appropriate to celebrate our rites with Bacchus.
This god, son of Zeus, rejoices in our banquets. He adores the goddess Peace, and she brings riches with her, and nourishes the young. The god gives his wine equally, sharing with rich and poor alike. It takes away all sorrow. But he hates the man who doesn’t care to live his life in happiness, by day and through the friendly nights. From those who deny such common things he removes the understanding, their knowledge of true wisdom. So I take this as my rule — follow what common people think — do what most men do.
[Enter a group of soldiers, bringing Dionysus with his arms tied up. Pentheus enters from the palace]
SOLDIER: Pentheus, we’re here because we’ve caught the prey you sent us out to catch. Yes, our attempts have proved successful. The beast you see here was tame with us. He didn’t try to run, but gave himself up willingly enough, without turning pale or changing colour on those wine dark cheeks. He even laughed at us, inviting us to tie him up and lead him off. He stood still, making it easy for me to take him in. It was awkward, so I said, “Stranger, I don’t want to lead you off, but I’m under orders here from Pentheus, who sent me.” And there’s something else — those Bacchic women you locked up, the ones you took in chains into the public prison — they’ve all escaped. They’re gone — playing around in some meadow, calling out to Bromius, summoning their god. Chains fell off their feet, just dropping on their own. Keys opened doors not turned by human hands. This man here has come to Thebes full of amazing tricks. But the rest of this business is now up to you.
[Soldier hands chained Dionysus over to Pentheus]
PENTHEUS: [Moving up close to Dionysus, inspecting him carefully] Untie his hands. He’s in my nets now. He’s not fast enough to get away from me.
[Soldiers remove the chains from Dionysus’ hands. Pentheus moves in closer]
Well, stranger, I see this body of yours is not unsuitable for women’s pleasure — that’s why you’ve come to Thebes. As for your hair, it’s long, which suggests that you’re no wrestler. It flows across your cheeks That’s most seductive. You’ve a white skin, too. You’ve looked after it, avoiding the sun’s rays by staying in the shade, while with your beauty you chase Aphrodite. But tell me first something about your family.
DIONYSUS: That’s easy enough, though I’m not boasting. You’ve heard of Tmolus, where flowers grow.
PENTHEUS: I know it. It’s around the town of Sardis.
DIONYSUS: I’m from there. My home land is Lydia.
PENTHEUS: Why do you bring these rituals to Greece?
DIONYSUS: Dionysus sent me — the son of Zeus.
PENTHEUS: Is there some Zeus there who creates new gods?
DIONYSUS: No. It’s the same Zeus who wed Semele right here.
PENTHEUS: Did this Zeus overpower you at night, in your dreams? Or were your eyes wide open?
DIONYSUS: I saw him — he saw me. He gave me the sacred rituals.
PENTHEUS: Tell me what they’re like, those rituals of yours.
DIONYSUS: That information cannot be passed on to men like you, those uninitiated in the rites of Bacchus.
PENTHEUS: Do they benefit those who sacrifice?
DIONYSUS: They’re worth knowing, but you’re not allowed to hear.
PENTHEUS: You’ve avoided that question skillfully, making me want to hear an answer.
DIONYSUS: The rituals are no friend of any man who’s hostile to the gods.
PENTHEUS: This god of yours, since you saw him clearly, what’s he like?
DIONYSUS: He was what he wished to be, not made to order.
PENTHEUS: Again you fluently evade my question, saying nothing whatsoever.
DIONYSUS: Yes, but then a man can seem totally ignorant when speaking to a fool.
PENTHEUS: Is Thebes the first place you’ve come to with your god?
DIONYSUS: All the barbarians are dancing in these rites.
PENTHEUS: I’m not surprised. They’re stupider than Greeks.
DIONYSUS: In this they are much wiser. But their laws are very different, too.
PENTHEUS: When you dance these rites, is it at night or during daylight?
DIONYSUS: Mainly at night. Shadows confer solemnity.
PENTHEUS: And deceive the women. It’s all corrupt!
DIONYSUS: One can do shameful things in daylight, too.
PENTHEUS: You must be punished for these evil games.
DIONYSUS: You, too — for your foolishness, your impiety towards the god.
PENTHEUS: How brash this Bacchant is! How well taught in using language!
DIONYSUS: What punishment am I to suffer? What harsh penalties will you inflict?
PENTHEUS: First, I’ll cut off this delicate hair of yours.
DIONYSUS: My hair is sacred. I grow it for the god.
PENTHEUS: And hand over that thyrsus in your hand.
DIONYSUS: This wand I carry is the god’s, not mine. You’ll have to seize it from me for yourself.
PENTHEUS: We’ll lock your body up inside, in prison.
DIONYSUS: The god will personally set me free, whenever I so choose.
PENTHEUS: That only works if you call him while among the Bacchae.
DIONYSUS: He sees my suffering now — and from near by.
PENTHEUS: Where is he then? My eyes don’t see him.
DIONYSUS: He’s where I am. You can’t see him, because you don’t believe.
PENTHEUS: [To his attendants] Seize him. He’s insulting Thebes and me.
DIONYSUS: I warn you — you shouldn’t tie me up. I’ve got my wits about me. You’ve lost yours.
PENTHEUS: But I’m more powerful than you, so I’ll have you put in chains.
DIONYSUS: You’re quite ignorant of why you live, what you do, and who you are.
PENTHEUS: I am Pentheus, son of Echion and Agave.
DIONYSUS: A suitable name. It suggests misfortune.
PENTHEUS: [to his soldiers] Go now. Lock him up in the adjoining stables — that way he’ll see nothing but the darkness. There you can dance. As for all those women, those partners in crime you brought here with you, we’ll sell them off or keep them here as slaves, working our looms, once we’ve stopped their hands beating those drum skins, making all that noise.
[Exit Pentheus into the palace, leaving Dionysus with the soldiers]
DIONYSUS: I’ll go, then. For I won’t have to suffer what won’t occur. But you can be sure of this — Dionysus, whom you claim does not exist, will go after you for retribution after all your insolence. He’s the one you put in chains when you treat me unjustly.
[The soldiers lead Dionysus away to an area beside the palace]
CHORUS: O Sacred Dirce, blessed maiden, daughter of Achelous, once your streams received the new-born child of Zeus, once his father snatched him from the immortal fire, then hid him in his thigh, crying out these words, “Go, Dithyrambus, enter my male womb. I’ll make you known as Bacchus to all those in Thebes, who’ll invoke you with that name.” But you, o sacred Dirce, why do you resist me, my garland-bearing company, along your river banks? Why push me away? Why seek to flee from me? I tell you, you’ll find joy in grape-filled vines from Dionysus. They’ll make you love him.
What rage, what rage shows up in that earth-bound race of Pentheus, born to Echion, an earth-bound mortal. He’s descended from a snake, that Pentheus, a savage beast, not a normal mortal man, but a bloody monster, who fights against the gods. He’ll soon bind me in chains, as a worshipper of Bacchus. Already he holds in his house my fellow Bacchic revelers, hidden in some dark cell. Do you see, Dionysus, child of Zeus, your followers fighting their oppression? Come down, my lord, down from Olympus, waving your golden thyrsus, to cut short the profanities of this blood-thirsty man.
Where on Mount Nysa, which nourishes wild beasts, where on the Corcyrean heights, where do you wave your thyrsus over your worshippers, oh Dionysus? Perhaps in those thick woods of Mount Olympus, where Orpheus once played his lyre, brought trees together with his songs, collecting wild beasts around him. Oh blessed Peiria, whom Dionysus loves — he’ll come to set you dancing in the Bacchic celebrations. He’ll cross the foaming Axius, lead his whirling Maenads, leaving behind the river Lydias which makes mortals wealthy, which, they say, acts as a father, nourishing with many lovely streams a land where horses flourish.
[The soldiers move in to round up the chorus of Bacchae. As they do so, the ground begins to shake, thunder sounds, lightning flashes, and the entire palace starts to break apart]
DIONYSUS: [shouting from within the palace] Io! Hear me, hear me as I call you. Io! Bacchae! Io Bacchae!
CHORUS: [a confusion of different voices in the following speeches] Who’s that? Who is it? It’s Dionysus’ voice! It’s calling me. But from what direction?
DIONYSUS: [From inside the palace] Io! Io! I’m calling out again — the son of Semele, a child of Zeus!
CHORUS: Io! Io! Lord and master! Come join our company, Bromius, oh Bromius!
DIONYSUS: [ From inside] Sacred lord of earthquakes, shake this ground.
[The earthquake tremors resume]
CHORUS VOICE 1: Ai! Soon Pentheus’ palace will be shaken into rubble.
CHORUS VOICE 2: Dionysus is in the house — revere him.
CHORUS VOICE 3: We revere him, we revere him.
CHORUS VOICE 4: You see those stone lintels on the pillars — they’re splitting up. It’s Bromius calling, shouting to us from inside the walls.
DIONYSUS: [from inside the palace] Let fiery lightning strike right now — burn Pentheus’ palace — consume it all!
CHORUS VOICE 5: Look! Don’t you see the fire — there by the sacred tomb of Semele! The flame left by that thunderbolt from Zeus, when the lightning bolt destroyed her, all that time ago. Oh Maenads — throw your bodies on the ground, down, down, for our master, Zeus’ son, moves now against the palace — to demolish it.
[Enter Dionysus, bursting through the palace front doors, free of all chains, smiling and supremely confident. The Chorus prostrates itself in front of him]
DIONYSUS: Ah, my barbarian Asian women, are you lying there on the ground prostrate with fear? It seems you feel Dionysus’ power, as he shakes the palace of Pentheus. Get up now. Be brave. And stop your trembling.
CHORUS LEADER: How happy I am to see you — Our greatest light in the joyful dancing. We felt alone and totally abandoned.
DIONYSUS: Did you feel despair when I was sent away, cast down in Pentheus’ gloomy dungeon?
CHORUS LEADER: How could I not be? Who’ll protect me if you run into trouble? But tell me, how did you escape that ungodly man?
DIONYSUS: No trouble. I saved myself with ease.
CHORUS LEADER: But didn’t he bind your hands up tight in chains?
DIONYSUS: In all this business I played with him — he thought he was tying me up, the fool! He didn’t even touch or handle me, he was so busy feeding his desires. In that stable where he went to tie me up, he found a bull. He threw the iron fetters around its knees and hooves. As he did so, he kept panting with rage, dripping sweat from his whole body, his teeth gnawing his lip. I watched him, sitting quietly nearby. After a while, Bacchus came and shook the place, setting his mother Semele’s tomb on fire. Seeing that, Pentheus thought his palace was burning down. He ran round, here and there, yelling to his slaves to bring more water. His servants set to work — and all for nothing! Once I’d escaped, he ended all that work. Seizing a dark sword, he rushed inside the house. Then, it seems to me, but I’m guessing now, Bromius set up out there in the courtyard some phantom image. Pentheus charged it, slashing away at nothing but bright air, thinking he was butchering me. There’s more — Bacchus kept hurting him in still more ways. He knocked his house down, right to the ground, all shattered, so Pentheus has witnessed a bitter end to my imprisonment. He’s dropped his sword, worn out, exhausted, a mere mortal daring to fight against a god. So now I’ve come quite calmly to you, leaving the house, ignoring Pentheus. Wait! It seems to me I hear marching feet — no doubt he’ll come out front here soon enough. What will he say, I wonder, after this? Well, I’ll deal with him quite gently, even if he comes out breathing up a storm. After all, a wise man ought to keep his temper.
[Pentheus comes hurriedly out of the palace, accompanied by armed soldiers]
PENTHEUS: What’s happening to me — total disaster! The stranger’s escaped, and we’d just chained him up.
Ah ha! Here is the man — right here. What’s going on? How did you get out? How come you’re here, outside my palace?
DIONYSUS: Hold on. Calm down. Don’t be so angry.
PENTHEUS: How did you escape your chains and get here?
DIONYSUS: Didn’t I say someone would release me — or didn’t you hear that part?
PENTHEUS: Who was it? You’re always explaining things in riddles.
DIONYSUS: It was the one who cultivates for men the richly clustering vine.
PENTHEUS: Ah, this Dionysus. Your words are a lovely insult to your god.
DIONYSUS: He came to Thebes with nothing but good things.
PENTHEUS: [To soldiers] Seal off all the towers on my orders — all of them around the city.
DIONYSUS: What for? Surely a god can make it over any wall?
PENTHEUS: You’re so wise, except in all those things where you should be wise.
DIONYSUS: I was born wise, especially in matters where I need to be.
[Enter the Messenger, a cattle herder from the hills]
DIONYSUS: But first you’d better listen to this man, hear what he has to say, for he’s come here from the mountains to report to you. I’ll still be here for you. I won’t run off.
MESSENGER: Pentheus, ruler of this land of Thebes, I’ve just left Cithaeron, that mountain where the sparkling snow never melts away.
PENTHEUS: What this important news you’ve come with?
MESSENGER: I saw those women in their Bacchic revels, those sacred screamers, all driven crazy, the ones who run barefoot from their homes. I came, my lord, to tell you and the city the dreadful things they’re doing, their actions are beyond all wonder. But, my lord, first I wish to know if I should tell you, openly report what’s going on up there, or whether I should hold my tongue. Your mood changes so fast I get afraid — your sharp spirit, your all-too-royal temper.
PENTHEUS: Speak on. Whatever you have to report, you’ll get no punishment at all from me. It’s not right to vent one’s anger on the just. The more terrible the things you tell me about those Bacchic women, the worse I’ll punish the one who instructed them in all their trickery.
MESSENGER: The grazing cattle were just moving into upland pastures, at the hour the sun sends out its beams to warm the earth. Right then I saw them — three groups of dancing women. One of them Autonoe led. Your mother, Agave, led the second group, and Ino the third. They were all asleep, bodies quite relaxed, some leaning their backs on boughs of pine, others with their heads on oak-leaf pillows, resting on the ground — in all modesty. They weren’t as you described — all drunk on wine or on the music of their flutes, hunting for Aphrodite in the woods alone. Once she heard my horned cattle lowing, your mother stood up amid all those Bacchae, then cried out to stir their limbs from sleep. They all rubbed refreshing sleep out of their eyes, and stood up straight there — a marvelous sight, to see such an orderly arrangement, women young and old and still unmarried girls. First, they let their hair loose down their shoulders, tied up the fawn skins (some had undone the cords, loosened the knots). Then around those skins they looped some snakes, who licked the women’s cheeks. Some held young gazelles or wild wolf cubs and fed them on their own white milk, the ones who’d left behind at home a new-born child, and whose breasts were still swollen full. They draped themselves with garlands of oak, of ivy and flowering yew. Then one of them, taking a thyrsus, struck a rock with it, and water gushed out, fresh as dew. Another, using her thyrsus, struck the ground. At once, the god sent fountains of wine out from the place. All those who craved white milk to drink just scratched the ground with their fingertips — it came out in streams. From their ivy wands streams of sweet honey dripped. If you’d been there, if you’d seen this, you’d come with reverence to that god whom you now criticize. Well, we cattle herders and shepherds met, to discuss and argue with each other, about the amazing things we’d just seen. And then a man who’d been in town a bit and had a way with words said to us all, “You men who live in the holy regions of these mountains, how’d you like to hunt down Pentheus’ mother, Agave — take her away from these Bacchic celebrations, and do the king a favour?” To all of us, he seemed to make good sense. So we set up an ambush, hiding ourselves in the bushes, lying down there. At the appointed time, the women started their Bacchic ritual, brandishing the thyrsus and calling out to the god they cry to, Bromius, Zeus’ son. The entire mountain, all its wild beasts was, like them, in one Bacchic frenzy. As these women moved, they made all things dance. Agave, by chance, was dancing close to me. Leaving the ambush where I’d been hiding, I jumped out, hoping to grab hold of her. But she screamed out, “Oh, my quick hounds, men are hunting us. Come, follow me — come on, armed with that thyrsus in your hand.” We ran off, and so escaped being torn apart by those Bacchic women. But they attacked the heifers browsing on the turf, unarmed, with their bare hands. You should have seen one ripping a fat, young, lowing calf apart — others tearing cows in pieces with their hands. You could’ve seen ribs and cloven hooves tossed everywhere — some hung up in branches dripping blood and gore. And bulls, proud beasts till then, with angry horns, collapsed there on the ground, dragged down by the hands of a thousand girls. Hides covering their bodies were torn off faster than you could wink your royal eye. Then, like birds carried up by their own speed, they rushed along the lower level ground, beside Asopus’ streams, that fertile land which yields its crops to Thebes. Like fighting troops, they raided Hysiae and Erythrae, below rocky Cithaeron, smashing everything, snatching children from their homes. Whatever they set on their shoulders, even bronze or iron, never fell off onto the dark earth, though it was not tied down. They carried fire in their hair, but those flames didn’t burn them. Some of the villagers, enraged at being plundered by the Bacchae, seized weapons. The sight of what happened next, my lord, was dreadful. For those pointed spears did not draw blood. But when those women threw the thrysoi in their hands, they wounded them and drove them back in flight. The women did this to men, but not without help from some god. Then they went back to where they’d started from, those fountains the god had created for them. They washed off the blood. Snakes licked their cheeks, cleansing their skin of every drop. My lord, you must welcome this god to our city, whoever he is. He’s a mighty god in many other ways. The people say, so I’ve heard, he gives to mortal human beings that vine which puts an end to human grief. Without wine, there’s no more Aphrodite — or any other pleasure left for men.
CHORUS LEADER: I’m afraid to talk freely before the king, but nonetheless I’ll speak — this Dionysus is not inferior to any god.
PENTHEUS: This Dionysian arrogance, like fire, keeps flaring up close by — a great insult to all the Greeks. We must not hesitate.
[To one of his armed attendants]
Go to the Electra Gates. Call out the troops, the heavy infantry, all fast cavalry. Tell them to assemble, along with those who carry shields — all the archers, too, men who use their hands to pull the bow string. We’ll march out against these Bacchae. This whole business will get out of hand, if we have to put up with what we’ve suffered from these women.
DIONYSUS: You’ve heard what I had to say, Pentheus, but still your not convinced. Though I’m suffering badly at your hands, I say you shouldn’t go to war against a god. You should stay calm. Bromius will not let you move his Bacchae from their mountains.
PENTHEUS: Don’t preach to me! You’ve got out of prison — enjoy that fact. Or shall I punish you some more?
DIONYSUS: I’d sooner make an offering to that god than kick against his whip in some angry fit — a mortal going to battle with a god.
PENTHEUS: I’ll sacrifice all right — with a slaughter of those women, just as they deserve — in the forests on Cithaeron.
DIONYSUS: You’ll all run. What a disgrace! To turn your bronze shields around, fleeing the thyrsoi of those Bacchic women!
PENTHEUS: [turning to one of his armed attendants, as if to go] It’s useless trying to argue with this stranger — whatever he does or suffers, he won’t shut up.
DIONYSUS [calling Pentheus back] My lord! There’s still a chance to end this calmly.
PENTHEUS: By doing what? Should I become a slave to my own slaves?
DIONYSUS: I’ll bring the women here — without the use of any weapons.
PENTHEUS: I don’t think so. You’re setting me up for your tricks again.
DIONYSUS: What sort of trick, if I want to save you in my own way?
PENTHEUS: You’ve made some arrangement, you and your god, so you can always dance your Bacchanalian orgies.
DIONYSUS: Yes, that’s true. I have made some arrangement with the god.
PENTHEUS: [to one of his armed servants] You there, bring me my weapons. [to Dionysus] And you, No more talk! Keep quiet!
DIONYSUS: Just a minute! [moving up to Pentheus] How’d you like to gaze upon those women out there, sitting together in the mountains?
PENTHEUS: I’d like that. Yes, for that I’d pay in gold — and pay a lot.
DIONYSUS: Why is that? Why do you desire it so much?
PENTHEUS: I’d be sorry to see the women drunk.
DIONYSUS: Would you derive pleasure from looking on, viewing something you find painful?
PENTHEUS: Yes, I would — if I were sitting in the trees in silence.
DIONYSUS: But even if you go there secretly, they’ll track you down.
PENTHEUS: You’re right. I’ll go there openly.
DIONYSUS: So you’re prepared, are you, to make the trip? Shall I lead you there?
PENTHEUS: Let’s go, and with all speed. I’ve got time.
DIONYSUS: In that case, you must clothe your body in a dress — one made of eastern linen.
PENTHEUS: What! I’m not going as a man? I’ve got to change myself into a woman?
DIONYSUS: If they see you as a man, they’ll kill you.
PENTHEUS: Right again. You always have the answer.
DIONYSUS: Dionysus taught me all these things.
PENTHEUS: How can I best follow what you suggest?
DIONYSUS: I’ll go inside your house and dress you up.
PENTHEUS: What dress? In a female outfit? I can’t do that — I’d be ashamed to.
DIONYSUS: You’re still keen to see the Maenads, aren’t you?
PENTHEUS: What sort of clothing do you recommend? How should I cover up my body?
DIONYSUS: I’ll fix up some long hair for your head.
PENTHEUS: What’s the next piece of my costume?
DIONYSUS: A dress down to your feet — then a headband, to fit here, around your forehead.
PENTHEUS: What else? What more will you give me?
DIONYSUS: A thyrsus to hold and a dappled fawn skin.
PENTHEUS: No. I can’t dress up in women’s clothes!
DIONYSUS: But if you go fighting with these Bacchae, you’ll cause bloodshed.
PENTHEUS: Yes, that’s true. So first, we must go up and spy on them.
DIONYSUS: Hunt down evil by committing evil — that sounds like a wise way to proceed.
PENTHEUS: But how will I make it through the city without the Thebans noticing me?
DIONYSUS: We go by deserted streets. I’ll take you.
PENTHEUS: Well, anything’s easier to accept than being ridiculed by Bacchic women. Let’s go into the house. I’ll think about what’s best.
DIONYSUS: As you wish. Whatever you do, I’m ready.
PENTHEUS: I think I’ll go in now. It’s a choice of going with weapons or taking your advice.
[Exit Pentheus into the palace. Dionysus turns to face the chorus]
DIONYSUS: My women! that man’s now snagged in our net. He’ll go to those Bacchae, and there he’ll die. That will be his punishment. Dionysus, you’re not far away. Now it’s up to you. Punish him. First, make sure he goes insane with some dizzy fantasy. If his mind is strong, he’ll never agree to put on women’s clothes. But he’ll do it, if you drive him crazy. I want him made the laughing stock of Thebes, as I lead him through the city, mincing as he moves along in women’s clothing, after he made himself so terrifying with all those earlier threats. Now I’ll be off, to fit Pentheus into the costume he’ll wear when he goes down to Hades, once he’s butchered by his mother’s hands. He’ll come to recognize Dionysus, son of Zeus, born in full divinity, most fearful and yet most kind to men.
CHORUS: Oh, when will I be dancing, leaping barefoot through the night, flinging back my head in ecstasy, in the clear, cold, dew-fresh air — like a playful fawn celebrating its green joy across the meadows — joy that it’s escaped the fearful hunt — as she runs beyond the hunters, bounding over their woven nets — they call out to their hounds to chase her with still more speed, but she strains every limb, running like a wind storm, rejoicing by the river plain, in places where no men lurk, in the green living world beneath the shady branches, the foliage of the trees.
What is wisdom? What is finer than the rights men get from gods — to hold their powerful hands over the heads of their enemies? Ah yes, what’s good is always loved.
The power of the gods is difficult to stir — but it’s a power we can count on. It punishes all mortal men who honour their own ruthless wills, who, in their fits of madness, fail to reverence the gods. Gods track down every man who scorns their worship — using their cunning to conceal the enduring steady pace of time. For there’s no righteousness in those who recognize or practice what’s beyond our customary laws. The truth is easy to acknowledge: whatever is divine is mighty, whatever has been long-established law is an eternal natural truth.
What is wisdom? What is finer than the rights men get from gods — to hold their powerful hands over the heads of their enemies? Ah yes, what’s good is always loved.
Whoever has escaped a storm at sea is a happy man in harbour, whoever overcomes great hardship is likewise another happy man. Various men out-do each other in wealth, in power, in all sorts of ways. The hopes of countless men are infinite in number. Some make men rich; some come to nothing. So I consider that man blessed who lives a happy life existing day by day.
[Enter Dionysus from the palace. He calls back through the open doors]
DIONYSUS: You who are so desperately eager to see those things you should not look upon, so keen to chase what you should not pursue — I mean you, Pentheus, come out here now, outside the palace, where I can see you dressed up as a raving Bacchic female, to spy upon your mother’s company.
[Enter Pentheus dressed in women’s clothing. He moves in a deliberately over-stated female way, enjoying the role]
DIONYSUS: [admiringly, as he escorts Pentheus from the doors] You look just like one of Cadmus’ daughters.
PENTHEUS: Fancy that! I seem to see two suns, two images of seven-gated Thebes. And you look like a bull leading me out here, with those horns growing from your head. Were you a beast once upon a time? It’s certain now you’ve changed into a bull.
DIONYSUS: The god walks here. He’s made a pact with us. Before his attitude was not so kind. Now you’re seeing just what you ought to see.
PENTHEUS: How do I look? Am I holding myself just like Ino or my mother, Agave?
DIONYSUS: When I look at you, I think I see them. But here, this strand of hair is out of place. It’s not under the headband where I fixed it.
PENTHEUS: [demonstrating his dancing steps] I must have worked it loose inside the house, shaking my head when I moved here and there, practising my Bacchanalian dance.
DIONYSUS: I’ll rearrange it for you. It’s only right that I should serve you. Straighten up your head.
[Dionysus begins adjusting Pentheus’ hair and clothing]
PENTHEUS: All right then. You can be my dresser, now that I’ve transformed myself for you.
DIONYSUS: Your girdle’s loose. And these pleats in your dress are crooked, too, down here at your ankle.
PENTHEUS: [examining the back of his legs] Yes, that seems to be true for my right leg, but on this side the dress hangs properly, down the full length of my limb.
DIONYSUS: Once you see those Bacchic women acting modestly, once you confront something you don’t expect, you’ll consider me your dearest friend.
PENTHEUS: This thyrsus — should I hold it in my right hand, or in my left? Which is more suitable in the Bacchic celebrations?
DIONYSUS: In your right. You must lift your right foot in time with it.
[Dionysus observes Pentheus trying out the dance step]
DIONYSUS: Your mind has changed. I applaud you for it.
PENTHEUS: Will I be powerful enough to carry the forests of Cithaeron on my shoulders, along with all those Bacchic females?
DIONYSUS: If you have desire, you’ll have the power. Before this your mind was not well adjusted. But now it’s working in you as it should.
PENTHEUS: Are we going to take some levers with us? Or shall I rip the forests up by hand, putting arm and shoulder under mountain peaks?
DIONYSUS: As long as you don’t obliterate those places the nymphs use to congregate, where Pan plays his music on his pipes.
PENTHEUS: You mention a good point. I’ll use no force to get the better of these women. I’ll conceal myself in the pine trees there.
DIONYSUS: You’ll find just the sort of hiding place a spy should find who want to hide himself, so he can gaze upon the Maenads.
PENTHEUS: That’s good. I can picture them right now, in the woods, going at it like rutting birds, clutching each other as they make sweet love.
DIONYSUS: Perhaps. That’s why you’re going — as a guard to stop all that. Maybe you’ll capture them, unless you’re captured first.
PENTHEUS: Lead on — though the centre of our land of Thebes. I’m the only man in all the city who dares to undertake this enterprise.
DIONYSUS: You bear the city’s burden by yourself, all by yourself. So your work awaits you, the tasks that have been specially set for you. Follow me. I’m the guide who’ll rescue you. Someone else will bring you back from there.
PENTHEUS: That will be my mother.
DIONYSUS: For everyone you’ll have become someone to celebrate.
PENTHEUS: That’s why I’m going.
DIONYSUS: You’ll be carried back . . .
PENTHEUS: [interrupting] You’re pampering me!
DIONYSUS: [continuing] . . . in your mother’s arms.
PENTHEUS: You’re really determined then to spoil me.
DIONYSUS: To spoil you? That’s true, but in my own way.
PENTHEUS: Then I’ll be off to get what I deserve.
DIONYSUS: [speaking in the direction Pentheus has gone, but not speaking to him] You fearful, terrifying man — on your way to horrific suffering. Well, you’ll win a towering fame, as high as heaven. Hold out your hand toward him, Agave, you, too, her sisters, Cadmus’ daughters. I’m leading this young man in your direction, for the great confrontation, where I’ll triumph — I and Bromius. What else will happen events will show, as they occur.
CHORUS 1: Up now, you hounds of madness, go up now into the mountains, go where Cadmus’ daughters keep their company of worshippers, goad them into furious revenge against that man, that raving spy, all dressed up in his women’s clothes, so keen to glimpse the Maenads. His mother will see him first, as he spies on them in secret from some level rock or crag. She’ll scream out to her Maenads, “Who’s the man who’s come here, to the mountains, to these mountains, tracking Cadmean mountain dancers? Oh my Bacchae, who has come? Who gave birth to this man? He’s not born of woman’s blood — he must be some lioness’ whelp or born from Libyan gorgons.”
CHORUS: Let justice manifest itself — Let justice march, sword in hand, to stab him in the throat, that godless, lawless man, unjust earthborn seed of Echion.
CHORUS 2: Any man intent on wickedness, turning his unlawful rage against your rites, O Bacchus, against the worship of your mother, a man who sets out with an insane mind, his courage founded on a falsehood, seeking to overcome by force what simply can’t be overcome — let death set his intentions straight. For a life devoid of grief is one which accepts without complaint whatever comes from the gods — that’s how mortals ought to live. Wisdom is something I don’t envy. My joy comes hunting other things lofty and plain to everyone. They lead man’s life to good in purity and reverence, honouring gods day and night, eradicating from our lives customs which lie beyond all justice
CHORUS: Let justice manifest itself — Let justice march, sword in hand, to stab him in the throat, that godless, lawless man, unjust earthborn seed of Echion.
CHORUS 3: Appear now to our sight, O Bacchus — come as a bull or many-headed serpent or some fire-breathing lion. Go now, Bacchus, with your smiling face cast your deadly noose upon that hunter of the Bacchae, as that group of Maenads brings him down.
[Enter Second Messenger, one of Pentheus’ attendants]
SECOND MESSENGER: How I grieve for this house, in earlier days so happy throughout Greece, home of that old man, Cadmus from Sidon, who sowed the fields to harvest the earth-born crop produced from that serpent Ophis. How I lament — I know I’m just a slave, but nonetheless . . .
CHORUS [They sing or chant their responses to the Messenger] Do you bring us news? Has something happened, something about the Bacchae?
SECOND MESSENGER: Pentheus, child of Echion, is dead.
CHORUS: O my lord Bromius, Now your divine greatness is here made manifest!
SECOND MESSENGER: What are you saying? Why that song? Women, how can you now rejoice like this for the death of one who was my master?
CHORUS LEADER: [chanting] We’re strangers here in Thebes, so we sing out our joy in chants from foreign lands. No longer need we cower here in fear of prisoner’s chains.
SECOND MESSENGER: Do you think Thebes lacks sufficient men to take care of your punishment?
CHORUS: [chanting] Dionysus, oh Dionysus, he’s the one with power over me — not Thebes.
SECOND MESSENGER: That you may be forgiven, but to cry aloud with joy when such disasters come, women, that’s not what you should be doing.
CHORUS: [chanting] Speak to me, tell all — How did death strike him down, that unrighteous man, that man who acted so unjustly?
SECOND MESSENGER: Once we’d left the settlements of Thebes, we went across the river Asopus, then started the climb up Mount Cithaeron — Pentheus and myself, I following the king. The stranger was our guide, scouting the way. First, we sat down in a grassy meadow, keeping our feet and tongues quite silent, so we could see without being noticed. There was a valley there shut in by cliffs. Through it refreshing waters flowed, with pines providing shade. The Maenads sat there, their hands busy at their delightful work — some of them with ivy strands repairing the damaged thyrsoi, while others sang, chanting Bacchic songs to one another, carefree as fillies released from harness. But then Pentheus, that unhappy man, not seeing the crowd of women, spoke up, “Stranger, I can’t see from where we’re standing. My eyes can’t glimpse those crafty Maenads. But up there, on that hill, a pine tree stands. If I climbed that, I might see those women, and witness the disgraceful things they do.” Then I saw that stranger work a marvel. He seized that pine tree’s topmost branch — it stretched up to heaven — he pulled it down, pulled it down to the dark earth, bending it as if it were a bow or some curved wheel forced into a circle staked out with pegs — that’s how the stranger made that tree bend down, pulling the mountain pine to earth by hand, something no mortal man could ever do. He set Pentheus in that pine tree’s branches. Then his hands slowly released the tree, so it stood straight, being very careful not to shake Pentheus loose. So that pine towered straight up to heaven, with my king perched on its back. Maenads could see him there more easily than he could spy on them. As he was just becoming visible — the stranger had completely disappeared — some voice — I guess it was Dionysus — cried out from the sky, “Young women, I’ve brought you the man who laughed at you, who ridiculed my rites. Now punish him!” As he shouted this, a dreadful fire arose, blazing between the earth and heaven. The air was still. In the wooded valley no sound came from the leaves, and all the beasts were silent, too. The women stood up at once. They’d heard the voice, but not distinctly. They gazed around them. Then again the voice shouted his commands. When Cadmus’ daughters clearly heard what Dionysus ordered, they rushed out, running as fast as doves, moving their feet at an amazing speed — his mother Agave with her sisters, and all the Bacchae, charged straight through the valley, the torrents, the mountain cliffs, pushed to a god-inspired frenzy. They saw the king there sitting in that pine. First, they scaled a rock looming up opposite the tree and started throwing rocks, trying to hurt him. Others threw branches, or hurled their thyrsoi through the air at him, sad, miserable Pentheus, their target. But they didn’t hit him. The poor man sat high beyond their frenzied cruelty, trapped up there, no way to save his skin. Then, like lightning, they struck oak branches down, used them as levers to uproot the tree. When these attempts all failed, Agave said, “Come now, make a circle round the tree. Then, Maenads, each of you must seize a branch, so we can catch the climbing beast up there, stop him making our god’s secret dances known.” Thousands of hands grabbed the tree and pulled. They yanked it from the ground. Pentheus fell, crashing to earth down from his lofty perch, screaming in distress. He knew well enough something evil was about to happen. His priestess mother first began the slaughter. She hurled herself at him. Pentheus tore off his headband, untying it from his head, so wretched Agave would recognize him, so she wouldn’t kill him. Touching her cheek, he cried out, “It’s me, mother, Pentheus, your child. You gave birth to me at home, in Echion’s house. Pity me, mother — don’t kill your own child for mistakes I’ve made.” But Agave was foaming at the mouth, her eyes rolling around, her mind not set on what she ought to think — she didn’t listen — she was possessed, in a Bacchic frenzy. She seized his left arm, below the elbow, pushed her foot against the poor man’s ribs, then tore his shoulder out. The strength she had — it was not her own. The god put power into those hands of hers. Meanwhile Ino, her sister, went at the other side, ripping off chunks of Pentheus’ flesh, while Autonoe and all the Bacchae, the whole crowd of them, attacked as well, all of them howling out together. As long as Pentheus was still alive, he kept on screaming. The women cried in triumph — one brandished an arm, another a foot — complete with hunting boot — the women’s nails tore his ribs apart. Their hands grew bloody, tossing bits of his flesh back and forth, for fun. His body now lies all over the place — some under rough rocks, some in the forest, deep in the trees. It’s difficult to find. As for the poor victim’s head, his mother stumbled on it. Her hands picked it up, then stuck it on top of a thyrsus. Now she carries it around Cithaeron, as though it were some wild lion’s head, leaving her sisters dancing with the Maenads. She’s coming here, inside these very walls, proudly showing off her ill-fated prey, calling out to Bacchus, her fellow hunter, her companion in the chase, the winner, the glorious victor. By serving him, in her great triumph, she wins nothing but tears. As for me, I’m leaving this disaster, before Agave arrives back home. The best thing is to keep one’s mind controlled, and worship all that comes down from the gods. That, in my view, is the wisest custom, for those who can put it into practice.
CHORUS: Let us dance to honour Bacchus, Let’s shout to celebrate what’s happened here, happened to Pentheus, child of the serpent, who put on women’s clothes, who took up the beautiful and blessed thyrsus — his certain death, disaster brought on by the bull. You Bacchic women descended from Cadmus, you’ve won glorious victory, one which ends in tears, which ends in lamentation. A noble undertaking this, to drench one’s hands in blood, life blood dripping from one’s own son.
CHORUS LEADER: Wait! I see Agave, Pentheus’ mother, on her way home, her eyes transfixed. Let’s all welcome now the happy revels of our god of joy!
[Enter Agave, cradling the head of Pentheus]
AGAVE: Asian Bacchae . . .
CHORUS: Why do you appeal to me?
AGAVE: [displaying the head] From the mountains I’ve brought home this ivy tendril freshly cut. We’ve had a blessed hunt.
CHORUS: I see it. As your fellow dancer, I’ll accept it.
AGAVE: I caught this young lion without a trap, as you can see.
CHORUS: What desert was he in?
CHORUS: On Cithaeron?
AGAVE: Cithaeron killed him.
CHORUS: Who struck him down?
AGAVE: The honour of the first blow goes to me. In the dancing I’m called Agave the blessed.
CHORUS: Who else?
AGAVE: Well, from Cadmus . . .
CHORUS: From Cadmus what?
AGAVE: His other children laid their hands on the beast, but after me — only after I did first. We’ve had good hunting. So come, share our feast.
CHORUS: What? You want me to eat that with you? Oh you unhappy woman.
AGAVE: This is a young bull. Look at this cheek It’s just growing downy under the crop of his soft hair.
CHORUS: His hair makes him resemble some wild beast.
AGAVE: Bacchus is a clever huntsman — he wisely set his Maenads against this beast.
CHORUS: Yes, our master is indeed a hunter.
AGAVE: Have you any praise for me?
CHORUS: I praise you.
AGAVE: Soon all Cadmus’ people. . .
CHORUS: and Pentheus, your son, as well.
AGAVE: . . . will celebrate his mother who caught the beast, just like a lion.
CHORUS: It’s a strange trophy.
AGAVE: And strangely captured, too.
CHORUS: You’re proud of what you’ve done?
AGAVE: Yes, I’m delighted. Great things I’ve done — great things on this hunt, clear for all to see.
CHORUS: Well then, you unfortunate woman, show off your hunting prize, your sign of victory, to all the citizens.
AGAVE: [addressing everyone] All of you here, all you living in the land of Thebes, in this city with its splendid walls, come see this wild beast we hunted down — the daughters of Cadmus — not with thonged spears, Thessalian javelins, or by using nets, but with our own white hands, our finger tips. After this, why should huntsmen boast aloud, when there’s no need for the implements they use? We caught this beast by hand, tore it apart — with our own hands. But where’s my father? He should come here. And where’s Pentheus? Where is my son? He should take a ladder, set it against the house, fix this lion’s head way up there, high on the palace front. I’ve captured it and brought it home.
[Enter Cadmus and attendants, carrying parts of Pentheus’ body]
CADMUS: Follow me, all those of you who carry some part of wretched Pentheus. You slaves, come here, right before the house.
[They place the bits of Pentheus’ body together in a chest front of the palace]
I’m worn out. So many searches — but I picked up the body. I came across it in the rocky clefts on Mount Cithaeron, ripped all to pieces, no parts lying together in one place. It was in the woods — difficult to search. Someone told me what my daughter’d done, those horrific acts, once I’d come back, returning here inside these city walls, with old Tiresias, back from the Bacchae. So I climbed the mountains once again. Now I bring home this child the Maenads killed. I saw Autonoe, who once bore Actaeon to Aristeius — and Ino, she was with her there, in the forest, both still possessed, quite mad, poor creatures. Someone said Agave was coming here, still doing her Bacchic dance. He spoke the truth, for I see her there — what a wretched sight!
AGAVE: Father, now you can be truly proud. Among all living men you’ve produced by far the finest daughters. I’m talking of all of us, but especially of myself. I’ve left behind my shuttle and my loom, and risen to great things, catching wild beasts with my bare hands. Now I’ve captured him, I’m holding in my arms the finest trophy, as you see, bringing it home to you, so it may hang here.
[offering him Pentheus’ head]
Take this, father let your hands welcome it. Be proud of it, of what I’ve caught. Summon all your friends — have a banquet, for you are blessed indeed, blessed your daughters have achieved these things.
CADMUS: This grief’s beyond measure, beyond endurance. With these hands of yours you’ve murdered him. You strike down this sacrificial victim, this offering to the gods, then invite me, and all of Thebes, to share a banquet. Alas — first for your sorrow, then my own. Lord god Bromius, born into this family, has destroyed us, acting out his justice, but too much so.
AGAVE: Why such scowling eyes? How sorrowful and solemn old men become. As for my son, I hope he’s a fine hunter, who copies his mother’s hunting style, when he rides out with young men of Thebes to chase after creatures in the wild. The only thing he seems capable of doing is fighting with the gods. It’s up to you, father, to reprimand him for it. Who’ll call him here into my sight, so he can see my good fortune for himself?
CADMUS: Alas! Alas! What dreadful pain you’ll feel when you recognize just what you’ve done If you stay forever in your present state, you’ll be unfortunate, but you won’t feel as if you’re suffering unhappiness.
AGAVE: But what in all this is wrong or painful?
CADMUS: First, raise your eyes. Look up into the sky.
AGAVE: All right. Why tell me to look up there?
CADMUS: Does the sky still seem the same to you, or has it changed?
AGAVE: It seems, well, brighter . . . more translucent than it was before.
CADMUS: And your inner spirit — is it still shaking?
AGAVE: I don’t understand what you’re asking. But my mind is starting to clear somehow. It’s changing . . . it’s not what it was before.
CADMUS: Can you hear me? Can you answer clearly?
AGAVE: Yes. But, father, what we discussed before, I’ve quite forgotten.
CADMUS: Then tell me this — to whose house did you come when you got married?
AGAVE: You gave me to Echion, who, people say, was one of those who grew from seeds you cast.
CADMUS: In that house you bore your husband a child. What was his name?
AGAVE: His name was Pentheus. I conceived him with his father.
CADMUS: Well then, this head your hands are holding — whose is it?
AGAVE: It’s a lion’s. That’s what the hunters said.
CADMUS: Inspect it carefully. You can do that without much effort.
AGAVE: [inspecting the head] What is this? What am I looking at? What am I holding?
CADMUS: Look at it. You’ll understand more clearly.
AGAVE: What I see fills me with terrible pain . . . such misery . . .
CADMUS: Does it still seem to you to be a lion’s head?
AGAVE: No. It’s dreadful — this head I’m holding belongs to Pentheus.
CADMUS: Yes, that’s right. I was lamenting his fate before you recognized him.
AGAVE: Who killed him? How did he come into my hands?
CADMUS: Harsh truth — how you come to light at the wrong moment.
AGAVE: Tell me. My heart is pounding in me to hear what you’re about to say.
CADMUS: You killed him — you and your sisters.
AGAVE: Where was he killed? At home? In what sort of place?
CADMUS: He was killed where dogs once made a common meal of Actaeon.
AGAVE: Why did this poor man go to Cithaeron?
CADMUS: He went there to ridicule the god and your Bacchanalian celebrations.
AGAVE: But how did we happen to be up there?
CADMUS: You were insane — the entire city was in a Bacchic frenzy.
AGAVE: Now I see. Dionysus has destroyed us all.
CADMUS: He took offense at being insulted. You did not consider him a god.
AGAVE: Father, where’s the body of my dearest son?
CADMUS: I had trouble tracking the body down. I brought back what I found.
AGAVE: Are all his limbs laid out just as they should be? And Pentheus, what part did he play in my madness?
CADMUS: Like you, he was irreverent to the god. That’s why the god linked you and him together in the same disaster — thus destroying the house and me, for I’ve no children left, now I see this offspring of your womb, you unhappy woman, cruelly butchered in the most shameful way. He was the one who brought new vision to our family.
[Addressing the remains of Pentheus]
My child, you upheld the honour of our house, my daughter’s son. You were feared in Thebes. No one who saw you would ever insult me, in old age, for you would have inflicted a fit punishment. But now great Cadmus, the man who sowed and later harvested the most splendid crop — the Theban people — will go into exile, banished from his home, a dishonoured man. Dearest of men, even though you’re no longer alive, my child, I count you among those closest to me. You won’t be touching my cheek any more, holding me in your arms, and calling me “grandfather,” as you ask me, “Old man, who is injuring or dishonouring you? Who upsets your heart with any pain? Tell me, father, so I can punish him — anyone who treats you in an unjust way.” Now you’re in this horrifying state, I’m in misery, your mother’s pitiful, and all your relatives are in despair. If there’s a man who disrespects the gods, let him think about how this man perished — then he should develop faith in them.
CHORUS LEADER: I’m sorry for you Cadmus — you’re in such pain. But your grandson deserved his punishment.
AGAVE: Father, you see how all has changed for me. [From being your royal and honoured daughter, the mother of a king, I’m now transformed — an abomination, something to fill all people’s hearts with horror, with disgust — the mother who slaughtered her only son, who tore him apart, ripping out the heart from the child who filled her own heart with joy — all to honour this god Dionysus. But, father, please give me your permission to lay out here the body of my son, prepare his corpse for proper burial.
CADMUS: That’s no easy task to undertake. His body, all the parts I could collect, lies here, in this chest, not a pretty sight. My own eyes can hardly bear to see him. But if you think you can endure the work, then, my child, begin the appropriate rites.
AGAVE: [removing Pentheus’ limbs and placing them on the ground in front of her] Alas, for my poor son, my only child, destroyed by his mother’s Bacchic madness. How could these hands of mine, which loved him so, have torn these limbs apart, ripped out his flesh. Here’s an arm which has held me all these years, growing stronger as he grew into a man, his feet . . . oh, how he used to run to me, seeking assurance of his mother’s love. His face was handsome, on the verge of manhood. See the soft down still resting on these lips, which have kissed me a thousand times or more. All this, and all the rest, here before us. Oh Zeus and all you Olympian gods . . . .
[She cannot complete the ritual and collapses in grief]
It makes no sense — it’s unendurable. How could the god have wished such things on me?
CHORUS LEADER [helping Agave get up] Lady, you must bear what cannot be borne. Your suffering is intense, but the god is just. You insulted him in Thebes, showed no respect — you’ve brought the punishment upon yourself.
CHORUS: What is wisdom? What is finer than the rights men get from gods — to hold their powerful hands over the heads of their enemies? Ah yes, what’s good is always loved.
So all praise Dionysus, praise the dancing god, god of our revelry, god whose justice is divine, whose justice now reveals itself.
DIONYSUS: Yes, I am Dionysus, son of Zeus. You see me now before you as a god. You Thebans learned about my powers too late. Dishonouring me, you earn the penalty. You refused my rites. Now you must leave — abandon your city for barbarian lands. Agave, too, that polluted creature, must go into perpetual banishment. And Cadmus, you too must endure your lot.] Your form will change, so you become a dragon. Your wife, Harmonia, daughter of Ares, whom you, though mortal, took in marriage, will be transformed, changing to a snake. As Zeus’ oracle declares, you and she will drive a chariot drawn by heifers. You’ll rule barbarians. With your armies, too large to count, you’ll raze many cities. Once they despoil Apollo’s oracle, they’ll have a painful journey back again. But Ares will guard you and Harmonia. He’ll change your lives in the lands of the blessed. So I proclaim--I, Dionysus, born from no mortal father, but from Zeus. If you had understood how to behave as you should have when you were unwilling, you’d now be fortunate, with Zeus’ child among your allies.
CADMUS: O Dionysus, we implore you — we’ve not acted justly.
DIONYSUS: You learn too late. You were ignorant when you should have known.
CADMUS: Now we understand. Your actions against us are excessive.
DIONYSUS: I was born a god, and you insulted me.
CADMUS: Angry gods should not act just like humans.
DIONYSUS: My father Zeus willed all this long ago.
AGAVE: Alas, old man, then this must be our fate, a miserable exile.
DIONYSUS: Why then delay? Why postpone what necessity requires?
CADMUS: Child, we’ve stumbled into this disaster, this terrible calamity — you and me, both in agony, your sisters, too. So I’ll go out to the barbarians, a foreign resident in my old age. And then for me there’s that oracle which says I’ll lead a mixed barbarian force back into Greece. And I’ll bring here with me Harmonia, Ares’ daughter, my wife. I’ll have the savage nature of a snake, as I lead my soldiers to the altars, to the tombs, in Greece. But even then, there’ll be no end to my wretched sorrows. I’ll never sail the downward plunging Acheron and reach some final peace.
AGAVE: [embracing Cadmus] Father, I must be exiled without you.
CADMUS: Why do you throw your arms about me, my unhappy child, just like some young swan protecting an old one — gray and helpless.
AGAVE: Because I’ve no idea where to go, once I’m banished from my father’s land.
CADMUS: Child, I don’t know. Your father’s not much help.
AGAVE: Farewell, then, to my home. Farewell to my native city. In my misfortune I abandon you, an exile from spaces once my own.
CADMUS: Go now to Aristeus’ house, my child.
AGAVE: How I grieve for you, my father.
CADMUS: And I grieve for you, my child, as I weep for your sisters.
AGAVE: Lord Dionysus has inflicted such brutal terror on your house.
DIONYSUS: Yes. For at your hands I suffered, too — and dreadfully. For here in Thebes my name received no recognition.
AGAVE: Farewell, father.
CADMUS: My most unhappy daughter, may you fare well. That will be hard for you.
AGAVE: Lead on, friends, so I may take my sisters, those pitiful women, into exile with me. May I go somewhere where cursed Cithaeron will never see me, nor my eyes glimpse that dreadful mountain, a place far away from any sacred thyrsus. Let others make Bacchic revels their concern.
CHORUS: The gods appear in many forms, They bring on many unwelcome things. What people expected never came about. What was unexpected, the gods made happen. That’s what this story has revealed.
[Exeunt Chorus and Cadmus, leaving on stage the remains of Pentheus’ body]
This version excludes the below-mentioned
line numbers of
Johnson’s translation. It also collapses the individual lines
(paralleling the Greek original) into full paragraphs, and replaces
proprietary formatting with semantic markup. Mr. Johnson’s
reconstructed text is marked up as
class="restored" and should appear in green in common
Marked up April, 2003 c.e.
[This text is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. The normal line numbers refer to this text and the ones in square brackets refer to the lines in the Greek text.
Note that there is an important gap of 50 lines or more in Euripides’ manuscript between lines 1329 and 1330 of the Greek text. The content of the missing lines is fairly well known, so this translation has attempted to provide a reconstructed text for the missing portion (lines 1645 to 1699 of the English text). That reconstructed text appears between square brackets]
This translation was last revised on November 20, 2002
[This introductory note has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia, for students in search of a brief general interpretative introduction to The Bacchae.
This text is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged — released November 2001. This text was last revised on November 25, 2001]
Euripides’ Bacchae, the last extant classical Greek tragedy, has for a long time been the focus of an intense interpretative argument, probably more so than any other Greek tragedy (especially in the wide range of very different interpretations the play). In this necessarily brief introduction, I wish to sketch out some details of the source of this disagreement and review some of the more common interpretative possibilities. In the course of this discussion, my own preferences will be clear enough, but I hope to do justice to some viewpoints with which I disagree.
To start with, let me review some of the more obvious and important facts of the play, things about which we are unlikely to disagree and which any interpretation is going to have to take into account. After this quick and brief review of the salient points, I’ll address some of the ways people have sought to interpret them.
First, the central dramatic action of the Bacchae — the play’s most obvious and important feature — is an invasion of Greece by an Asian religion (something which may well have a historical basis from a time well before Euripides, but that is not our concern here). The opening scenes of the play repeatedly stress the non-Greek qualities and origins of the followers of Dionysus, tell us that they have been involved in a sweep through Asia Minor, converting cities as they go, and indicate clearly that Thebes is the first entirely Greek city subject to this new force, the first stop in what is to be a continuing campaign of forceful conversion of Greek city-states. Dionysus may have been born in Thebes (more about that later), but he and his followers identify themselves and their cause repeatedly as an invasion of Greece by Asian (non-Greek) ways — and what he brings with him is also seen by the Greeks (at least by Pentheus) as something non-Greek, something new and threatening (the difference is, of course, emphatically brought out by the clothing and movements of the chorus in contrast to the clothing and movements of the citizens of Thebes).
It’s also clear enough what this religion involves, a rapturous group experience featuring dancing, costumes, music, wine, and ecstatic release out in nature away from the city (in the wild, potentially dangerous nature of the mountains, not in the safer cultivated areas). It is presented to us as a primarily (but not exclusively) female experience, one which takes women of all ages away from their homes and their responsibilities in the polis and confers on them amazingly irrational powers, beyond the traditional controls exercised by the male rulers of the city, and brings them into harmony with wild nature (most obviously symbolized by the dancing in bare feet). In the Bacchic celebrations the traditional lines of division between human beings and animals and between different groups of human beings (social and gender differences) break down and disappear or are transformed. The play stresses the beauty, energy, creativity, and communal joy of this Bacchic ritual, while at the same time repeatedly informing us of the destructive potential latent in it.
The central conflict in the play focuses on the clash between this new religion and the traditional Greek way of life — both the customary political authority (embodied in Pentheus) and the long-standing religious and social attitudes (manifested most clearly by Tiresias and Cadmus, two figures of major symbolic importance in traditional Greek literature and myth). These characters are faced with the issue of how they should respond to something very foreign to what they are used to. They discuss the matter, argue amongst themselves, and make different decisions. The play thus forces us to examine a range of options and to confront the question about how one should deal with Dionysus and what he represents in the light of traditional Greek ways of running the human community.
The most significant of these responses is that of Pentheus, the king. On the surface, he is acting like a traditional tragic hero, accepting responsibility for protecting the city in the face of an obvious political crisis (all the women out of town raising havoc among the local villages, tearing cattle apart, and so on) and acting decisively to restore order. But we quickly sense that Pentheus, unlike, say, Oedipus or Achilles (or even Creon in Antigone, for that matter), has complex inner problems (especially concerning sexuality), so that his responses to the crisis (all that talk of prisons, soldiers, massacres, and so forth, along with his constant military escort, his fascination with Dionysus’ appearance, especially the obsession with his hair) come across more as a psychological response to certain personal inadequacies or inner pressures (things he’d sooner not think about or is even unaware of in himself) than a genuine desire to do the right thing for the city or to assert a self-confident sense of his own greatness based upon a past record of achievement. This aspect of the play makes it the most psychologically compelling of all the Greek tragedies, and dealing with this psychological dimension is obviously essential in any coherent evaluation of the play.
Finally (to conclude this short list of obvious features), the actions of this play are brutally destructive: the palace is destroyed, the major characters are all punished horribly by an omnipotent god who is supremely confident about his powers and (much of the time) superbly contemptuous of the human beings he is dealing with (the references to the enigmatic smile of Dionysus are important here). In his distribution of punishments, Dionysus seems to refuse to consider that some of those he is punishing so dreadfully made some attempt to accept his worship and to persuade others to do the same. At the end of the play Thebes (the oldest city in Greek mythology, the place where the Greek race originated, as the play reminds us) is in ruins, its ruling family (the origin of the people of Thebes) is finished, as Dionysus and his followers sweep off to the next Greek city (presumably to re-enact what we have just seen). The final image we are left with is the scattered parts of Pentheus’ body (the only unburied corpse in Greek tragedy, as Jan Kott reminds us), and the memory of the fact that, under the god’s forceful control, his mother ripped him apart and (perhaps) ate some of him. The only one left unshocked by what happens in Dionysus’ version of a deserved “punishment” is Dionysus himself, who throughout the play seems to be enjoying himself immensely (the marked silence of the Chorus near the end suggests that even they may wondering just what their leader has done in the service of the religion they celebrate in his name, although the significant gap in the manuscript near the end may include something to meet this point). Dionysus’ statements justifying his treatment of Cadmus, Pentheus, and Agave are brutally curt and impossible to accept as a satisfactory justification for what has happened.
What makes this brutality all the worse is that Dionysus’ treatment of human beings robs them of their dignity. Greek tragedy is, of course, no stranger to excessively harsh treatment of human beings by malevolent gods (Oedipus being the supreme example), but such treatment does not usually remove from the main characters a sense of their own heroic worth as they try to cope — in fact, confronting that heroic magnificence in the face of a hostile or unpredictable or unknown (but ultimately destructive) divine presence is the most important part of the imaginative wonder we experience in reading a great deal of Greek literature, from the Iliad onwards.
But in The Bacchae such heroic worth is hard to find, simply because so many major characters are either merely silly (like Tiresias and Cadmus) or have no control over what they are doing (like Pentheus or Agave) — lacking power over themselves, they are not free to make the decisions through which the values of heroic self-assertiveness manifest themselves. In that sense, they are very different from earlier heroic figures, who may well live in a fatalistic universe ruled by mysterious and hostile irrational powers but who never abandon the essence of their individual greatness: the freedom to assert their value in the face of such a fate. For such self-assertion (no matter how personally disastrous) to have value (that is, to manifest some human qualities worthy of our admiration and respect), we must see it as something freely willed, something undertaken deliberately in the face of other options. Such freedom Pentheus does not have, because he is in the grip of inner compulsions which do not enable him to make independent choices. If there is a necessary connection between his actions and his fate, that connection stems from his unconscious psychological weakness rather than from his conscious heroic assertiveness, pubic-spiritedness, or courage. This, it strikes me, is a crucial point (to which I shall return later on).
Let us now turn to some of the ways interpreters have encouraged us to understand these (and other) matters.
One easy way to shape the events of the play is to see it as a relatively unproblematic morality story whose main trust is divine punishment against Pentheus and Thebes for their refusal to accept the godhead of Dionysus (this, of course, is Dionysus’ view). Taken at the most simplistic level, the brutality in the play might thus be seen as justification for evil behaviour or heresy: Pentheus and Agave act badly, they should have known better than to disrespect the divine (as the chorus repeatedly points out), and they earn their punishment, since people ought to respect and obey and worship the gods (or God).
Such a response is, of course, drastically oversimple, but it is also very reassuring, since it enables us to place any potential difficulties we might have in exploring some disturbing complexities (like the astonishingly brutal and irrational ending — so disproportionately savage) into a comfortably familiar moral rubric. In fact, such easy moralizing is a common feature of many interpretations of Greek works (especially tragedies) offered by those who do not wish to face up to some unsettling possibilities (so Oedipus deservedly suffers because he commits sin or has too quick a temper, the destruction of Troy — as presented in the Iliad — is just, because Paris shouldn’t have run off with Helen, and so on). This tendency, it strikes me, though very common, is essentially a reflex response of, among others, modern liberal rationalists who don’t want to face up to the full ironic complexity of tragic fatalism (but that’s a subject for another lecture).
The notion that we are witnessing some acceptable form of divine justice here is surely stained once we consider the horrific and all-encompassing nature of that punishment — the destruction of an ancient centre of civilization, the degradation, self-abasement, and horrific death of the hero, the killing of a son by his mother, and extreme punishments handed out to all, no matter how they respond to the arrival of the god, combined with the pleasure the god takes in inflicting such destruction on human civilization and the inadequacy of his explanation. All these bring out strongly the irrationality, even the insanity, of Dionysus’ “justice.” So it becomes difficult, I think, to force the play into a comfortably rational shape, if by that we mean that it endorses some easy moral belief that evil is, more or less, punishment for sin.
A more sophisticated (and certainly more interesting) version of this approach to the play looks at Dionysus, not simply as a foreign god, but as the embodiment of certain aspects of human experience, as a symbol for the irrational, communal excitement, bonding, power, joy, intoxication, and excess which all too often get lost in the careful life of the city, governed by habit, rules, laws, and responsibilities. This approach to the play stresses the fact that Thebes has lost touch with those irrational energizing unconscious powers of life and, in Agave’s and Pentheus’ refusal to acknowledge the divinity of Dionysus, created a situation where these powers (which cannot be forever denied) simply break out with disastrous consequences. If that doesn’t carry an explicit moral, at least it serves as a cautionary tale.
This view has a good deal to recommend it, particularly in the figure of Pentheus, who is clearly striving throughout much of the play to repress hidden irrational desires and to deal with a fascination with and horror of those desires. He seeks to cope by encasing everything, including himself, inside metal (chains or armour) and by lashing out with male force (soldiers and commands), trying to impose a sense of external order on something which repels and attracts him, something which is obviously connected to his buried feelings about sexuality, an issue to which he keeps returning obsessively (whether in connection with Dionysus or the Bacchic women). However else we see Pentheus, it is not difficult to observe in him a person who is incapable of uniting his conscious sense of who he is as a king (political leader) with his unconscious repressed awareness of himself as an emotional (and especially a sexual) being with hidden and unfulfilled desires (a point brought out emphatically by the male-female polarity in the conflict).
This aspect of the play is also strongly brought out by the obvious similarities between Pentheus and Dionysus — both young men from the same family. It’s not difficult to make the case that, in a sense, in those central confrontations between the two characters, Pentheus is having to deal with a part of himself, a part that he doesn’t recognize as his (or doesn’t want to). The fact that Dionysus was born in Thebes underscores this point — he may have been long absent, but he is by birth as much a part of Thebes as Pentheus (both are grandsons of Cadmus). So Pentheus’ rejection of Dionysus is a rejection of him as a close family member (part of himself), as well as a rejection of his divinity. And Dionysus’ confident manipulation of Pentheus evokes a strong sense that he is very much at home in Pentheus’ psyche and understands well just how ineffectual all those external controls Pentheus is relying on are going to be once he (Dionysus) starts playing to those repressed desires Pentheus harbours.
The play also links the music central to Dionysian ritual with the very earliest development of the Olympian gods (Zeus’ birth), so there’s a sense here that what Dionysus celebrates is a fixed and divinely ordained part of the scheme of things, no matter how much some people may have forgotten or never known that.
It’s possible, on this view, to argue that Dionysus is initially seeking some synthesis in Thebes, some reinvigoration of the city by the introduction and acceptance of his rituals (hence to restore life to a more appropriate balance), with initially no particularly destructive intent, but that he changes his mind in the face of Pentheus’ intransigence. Dionysus, after all, volunteers to bring the women back into the city, without violence, an offer which suggests that some compromise may be possible. Only after Pentheus typically rejects the offer (or ignores it), does Dionysus then tempt Pentheus out into the mountains to his death. This moment when Dionysus makes his offer and Pentheus rejects it is a particularly interesting one, suggesting as it does that Pentheus may be unwilling to compromise because he wants to see something illegal, sexual, naughty — he doesn’t want to accommodate himself to it (by having the women back in the city), but to enjoy it all the more because it offends him — the urge to enjoy the frisson of a voyeur overcomes any desire to understand and adjust — there would be no delight in seeing the women dance if that was legal, part of everyday life (given this point, just what he might be doing sitting under the trees in silence as he watches the Bacchic women invites some imaginative exploration). So we might see the destruction of Pentheus as the self-immolation of a man too afraid of his inner self to address it maturely and too fascinated with it to repress it successfully.
However, there are some difficulties with this line of interpretation. Apart from the fact that Dionysus gives very little indication of a genuine intent to harmonize his religion with Greek political life (given how well he understands Pentheus, that offer mentioned above may be just one more psychological deception, a preparation for what he has had in mind all along, the total humiliation and meaningless destruction of Pentheus), the play offers us no sense that a harmonious synthesis with what Thebes has become and the new religion of Dionysus is possible. If it offered us that, then it might be easier to see Pentheus’ destruction as a particular instance of one badly fractured personality. But instead the play holds up for ridicule those Thebans who do seek to worship Dionysus (Tiresias and Cadmus) and subjects the women who have gone up into the mountains to the most horrific punishments.
In addition, the play stresses the uncivil and anti-civil actions required and encouraged by Dionysian rituals (especially the abandoning and kidnapping of children, the destruction of domestic animals, and so on — culminating in the most anti-civil action of all, the mother’s destruction of her child, an act which, more than any other, violates the basic reason for the community’s existence). Given what this play shows us, it is difficult to believe that a reconciliation between Dionysian religion and civil life is possible. And if that is not available, then what sort of cautionary tale are we being offered here? What exactly are we, as spectators, supposed to take away from this in the way of closure?
Given this last point, it is not difficult to see why some interpreters have viewed this play as an indictment of religion because of its hostility to the survival of the community, on the ground that religion (as depicted by Dionysus and his followers) is the basis for the irrational destructiveness which threatens and ultimately overthrows the well-ordered city in an orgy of cruel excess. On this view, the play is a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious superstitions.
This approach naturally makes a good deal of the way in which the play always links the benefits of Dionysian religion, its value as a beautiful, creative celebration, with destructiveness, with anti-political or extra-political activities, and, from time to time, with a sense of passive resignation: human life is really not worth much, but at least, thanks to Dionysus, we have wine, which enables us to forget our troubles, so we should worship the god who makes it possible for us to get drunk and not strive to be anything better than we are. And in the Dionysian celebrations we can forget our individual cares, responsibilities, and laws and give free rein to our inhibitions — a sure way to undermine the things most essential to human well being and happiness, namely, the security of a well-governed city and the rational powers of the human mind to make things better (or at least stop them from getting worse).
If we focus exclusively upon these features of the play, then it’s not difficult to sense how many might see it as a scathing attack on popular superstitions, particularly those which generate enthusiasm through mass hysteria and crowd violence in the face of calmer, more traditional controls (and self-control). But there are difficulties in pushing this interpretative possibility too far.
The major obstacle here, of course, is the figure of Pentheus himself. As the political ruler of Thebes, he embodies the nature and value of the civic authority threatened by Dionysian excess. And whatever we might like to say about Pentheus, he is hardly someone in whom we might celebrate the enduring values of civilized and just political life (for reasons mentioned above in the previous section). Quite the reverse — he seems as much a threat to what is valuable in civic life as Dionysus (although, of course, he is unaware of that).
In addition, the traditional values of Thebes are, in the figures of Tiresias and especially Cadmus, exposed as silly, grotesque, and self-serving. They want to dance to the music but travel there in a chariot. Cadmus seems particularly keen that his family’s status will be improved if people think his daughter has given birth to a god (whether it’s true or not). Their combined physical decrepitude (the blind leading the lame) is an eloquent physical symbol of the extent to which the long traditions they represent have become enfeebled (and, as I mentioned earlier, no two mythological characters in Greek literature carry more solemn weight, from the Odyssey onward, than these two, so treating them this way is a bit like making, say, George Washington an anxious, neurotic, and selfish coward in a retelling of Valley Forge).
One would think that, if the main point of the play is to expose the savagery of religious superstition as a danger to civic order or peaceful political life, then the political order would be presented as something more valuable, more worth preserving than it is here. After all, whatever feelings of horror and sympathetic pathos we may feel at Pentheus’ destruction, there is no sense that he carries an inherent dignity and redeeming value which is sacrificed with him (other than his presence as a confused, suffering, inadequate human being). The same applies Tiresias and Cadmus and Agave.
A more persuasive and inclusive approach to the play, it strikes me, builds on the strengths of the previously mentioned alternatives, refusing to see it as endorsing one side of the dichotomy against the other (Pentheus and Thebes or Dionysus and the Bacchants) and instead exploring the play as a particularly despairing vision of the destructiveness inherent in the ambiguities of human existence, contradictions which simply cannot be reconciled into some harmonious creative whole. Rather than being a cautionary tale, the play is a passionate vision of total despair.
This approach would stress that, indeed, the vision of political and traditional life of Thebes sees it as hopeless silly, insecure, and shallow, built on no confident sense of justice — something that has run out of a creative energizing faith in itself (hence the reflex reliance on power). Those who embody ancient traditions (Cadmus and Tiresias) have become self-serving caricatures of what they used to be. The traditional source of political leadership and justice (the king, Pentheus) is radically uncertain of his identity, wracked with inner complexities which control his actions, and thus without any confident self-assertiveness or sense of responsibility for the sake of the community. The considerable power he exercises hence comes to be used primarily to protect himself against his own inner insecurities. No wonder he is much more more concerned with confinement and slaughter than he is with justice — he’s fighting against his own inner desires which (as mentioned above) attract and repel him.
At the same time, his polar opposite, Dionysus, for all the supreme self-confidence he displays, is a malevolent destroyer. The gifts he brings are considerable, but they are not compatible with civilized human achievement (at least not as this play presents them) — they not merely challenge existing traditions; they also completely obliterate those who stand in their way. And they do this, not in the name of some workable political or communal alternative, but for the sake of mass ecstatic frenzy outside the traditional community and drunken oblivion within it.
If we remember that the central concern of the human community in Greek literature is justice — the best arrangement whereby human beings can live and prosper together as citizens of a political unit, then Pentheus and Dionysus both bring out the extent to which justice has disappeared. Pentheus is concerned only with power in the shoring up of his own inadequate personality; Dionysus is concerned only with ecstatic release in a mass frenzy and the total destruction of those who do not immediately comply — all in order to convert civic life into an irrational manifestation of belief in what he represents.
Incidentally, in considering the importance of this idea of justice, we should not be too quick to accept the Chorus’ frequent invocations of what they call justice as the “message” of the play or as the point of view the author is hoping we’ll accept. It’s true the Chorus frequently sings of justice, but a close view of what they mean by the term stresses their irrational sense of the term: for them justice is a god-given right to oppress one’s enemies or a willed refusal to do anything more than passively accept the given conditions of life. These two options, I would suggest, remove from the term justice any central concern with the difficult struggle to establish fairness in the community and repetitively insist upon the extent to which the worship of Dionysus, as defined here, runs directly counter to the major concern of Greek political life.
The play offers no suggestion that a reconciliation between these two cousins is possible. Human experience is radically split into two diametrically opposed and inherently incomplete possibilities. When they come together, destruction of civilization results — a horror in which there is no room for human beings to manifest the slightest individual dignity and hence assert some human values in their suffering (in fact, their individuality is taken away from them before they die, so that they become objects of mockery or pathos). So it doesn’t matter which side one chooses to align oneself with, Dionysus or Pentheus, the end result is the same. There is no moral lesson to be learned — that’s simply the way the world works.
Jan Kott in a remarkably interesting essay drew a fruitful parallel between The Bacchae and Conrad’s famous story Heart of Darkness, in which (to simplify a very complex fiction and Kott’s remarks on it) human experience is presented to us as offering two irreconcilable possibilities — the European life on the surface (with its stress on political power, suppression of nature, urban bureaucratic rationality, and ignorance of the inner life) and African life lived from the heart (with its stress on passion, dancing, mass movement, and cannibalism, in the prehistoric wilderness of the jungle). Conrad’s tale explores (among other things) the mutual destruction which occurs when these two ways of life (or aspects of life) collide, and it offers us no hope for some harmonious reconciliation (either politically or psychologically). The experience of these possibilities leaves Marlowe with the cryptic final comment that life is, in effect, a “choice of nightmares” — one can stay on the surface or move into the darkness, but either way life is inherently unfulfilled. Someone who, like Kurtz, tries to experience both as fully as possible is left in self-destructive despair (“The horror! The horror!”).
Kott’s parallel, it strikes me, is very illuminating, because it does justice to the full power of Euripides’ play — especially the savage vision of despair at the end, which we might like to mute by imposing on it some more comfortable moral “lesson,” but which is much too powerful to be contained by such a confining and neat interpretative scheme.
Thinking about the parallels between these two stories, I am struck by how much more despairing Euripides’ tale is than Conrad’s. For in Conrad’s story, the two ways of life are widely separated geographically, and there’s a sense that so long as that separation remains, the European civilization will continue, content on the surface and economically prosperous in its ignorant idealism (although Marlowe senses it is slowly dying). And in that story we also have the figure of Marlowe as someone who, if he has not reconciled the white and the black, has adopted a meditative stance towards the paradoxes of his experience and finds some purpose in sailing back and forth between them and in telling his story. But in Euripides’ play there is no similar sense — the worlds of Dionysus and Pentheus are inevitably colliding, with more examples to follow, and we have no final consolation in a Marlowe-like figure. Instead we have the scattered bits of Pentheus, all that remains of Thebes and its royal family.
Those who like to anchor their interpretations on details of historical context (not a procedure I personally recommend for reasons there is not time to go into here, but a popular method of proceeding nonetheless) will find plenty of potentially useful supporting detail for the final suggestions given above. Let me briefly mention a few.
The Bacchae is one of Euripides’ very last works (unperformed in his life, with the manuscript discovered at his death), written when the aging writer had turned his back on Greece and moved to Macedon (around 408 BC) shortly before his death, perhaps bitter because he had never achieved the highest success as a tragedian in Athens or in his frustration at Athenian political life. At this time the long drawn-out insanity of the Peloponnesian War was in its final stages, and its destructive effects on the highest Greek (especially Athenian) achievements were plain for all to see, as the possibilities for a just communal political life among the Greek city-states and within particular states had foundered on greed, self-interest, mass killings, Persian money, the corruption or abandonment of traditional ways, and political incompetence (in short, on the disappearance of justice).
The sense that in this war the Greeks were in the grip of some mass self-destructive insanity which weak traditional political structures and shallow personalities were inadequate to deal with was by no means confined to Euripides (if that is how we read his play) — there is strong corroboration in, among other texts, the apocalyptic ending of the Clouds and, of course, throughout Thucydides.
The above interpretative suggestions are underscored by the remarkably rich treatment of a number of important Greek myths throughout the play. These highlight the tensions between the eastern (barbarian) and Greek responses to life and to the divine and suggest by the end that the Greek way has been overcome and banished. There may well be a sense that whatever it was which made Greece special (in contrast to the barbarians), the Greek “experiment,” if you will, has ended. Without going into great detail, let me suggest some of the ways in which the mythic content of the play and the discussion of how one understands myth help to illuminate this play’s despairing vision.
Central to The Bacchae is the family of Cadmus. The play reminds us early on that Cadmus came from Asia (from Sidon) and created the Greek race by sowing the dragon’s teeth which produced the first Greeks (the Cadmeians) — an event which is referred to more than once. Cadmus also married Harmonia, an immortal, in a celebration which (like the similar union of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and Thetis) symbolizes the possibility of a harmonious relationship between the human and the divine as the creative basis for the just community (of the sort we see dramatically symbolized at the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia).
The play forces us to examine the destruction of this earlier harmony between gods and men and hence of the political and communal ideal which it endorses. Dionysus, an eastern god (or a god bringing with him a different relationship to the divine) is interested in submission, ecstatic revelry, and drink. Those who do not at once celebrate this vision of divinity are subjected to harsh, instant, irrational punishment for disobedience. And the penalty he inflicts here — the killing of a child by his mother and the banishment of the royal family into barbarian lands (a significant contrast to the Oresteia, where the killing of a mother by the son helps to establish human justice under divine auspices in the polis) — marks an end to whatever Greek Thebes was all about to begin with. The barbarian East, where Cadmus originally came from, has triumphed.
There may even be a sense here in the Bacchae that the experiment was doomed from the start. That, at any rate, is one construction one can put on the strong emphasis given in this play to an eastern vision of Zeus, a Zeus who, as E. R. Dodds points out (84), seems far more like Dionysus than the traditional Greek notion of Zeus (especially in all those details linking Zeus’ birth to the irrationality of Dionysian revels and in Dionysus’ repeated insistence that he is the son of Zeus). The emphasis on the overwhelming destructiveness of the gods (from Zeus’ lighting bolt which kills Semele to the tearing apart of Actaeon, as well as Dionysus’ conduct in the play) tends constantly to undercut any sense that some sort of harmonious cooperation between humans and the divine, some arrangement which gives human beings a chance to manifest their worth in a traditionally Greek way, is possible.
But if this play is exploring such a despairing vision, it offers us the sense that part of the problem is the loss of human participation in the original arrangement. In the Bacchae, we witness the deterioration of the human capacity to accept the mystery of divine mythology as a vitalizing and creative political presence — and the enduring value of the link between the human and the divine celebrated in the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia depends upon that more than anything else.
Here, however, Cadmus’ children refuse to enter the world of religious myth. Semele’s sisters see her story as a convenient lie to excuse her sexual promiscuity with some man, and Pentheus is far too concerned with secular power and his own inadequacies to entertain a truly religious thought. Cadmus sees religion primarily as a way of making his family more important (and thus protecting himself). None of them displays any true reverence for the mysteries of life passed down to them (in this respect, one might note the significant differences between them and, say, Oedipus in Oedipus the King).
The most interesting figure in connection with this attitude to mythology is Tiresias, traditionally a mediator between divine wisdom and limited human understanding. Here he seems more concerned to rationalize Dionysus away, rather than to accept him as a particular, immediate, and mysterious religious experience. Hence, he can subject the myth of Dionysus’ birth from the thigh of Zeus to rational analysis (Dodds has some excellent comments on this point on 91). There may well be some satiric intent in this presentation of Tiresias (maybe), but, beyond the most immediate satire, there may also be a sense that this most venerable of religious sensibilities has degenerated (or, if that is too strong, changed) into a new form of thinking which makes religious belief at least difficult and at most ridiculous.
Depending on the construction one puts upon the attitude to mythology in the Bacchae, one might offer a variety of interpretative possibilities concerning Euripides’ final word on Greek traditions, from lament to satire. My own view is that the play is not taking sides, but rather, as I have mentioned, exploring a passionate sense of despair at what has happened and what the future holds. With one eye on the philosophical revolution which, in the figures of Socrates and Plato, is going to attempt to redefine the basis of the good life, we can understand why Nietzsche (in The Birth of Tragedy) sees Euripides and Socrates as soul mates, but we do not have to go that far. The play evokes a terrible sense of something coming to an end (the exile of Cadmus and Harmonia and the end of Greek Thebes) — and it invites speculation about what now happens to the human community in the face of the triumph of Dionysian irrationality and destruction.
E. R. Dodds, editor. Euripides Bacchae. Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
Jan Kott. The Eating of the Gods: An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy. NY: Random House, 1974.