Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Bacchae

Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll are no new thing one discovers in Bacchae, Euripides’s classic play that was first performed in 406 BC. Here we have the god of wine and inspirer of madness leading his female acolytes to commit acts more ghastly than anything the Manson Family ever thought up.

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and the human woman Semele. She was struck dead by a lightning bolt for gazing upon him and Zeus carried the fetus to birth sewn up in his thigh. The royal house of Cadmus in Thebes believes that Semele was killed for blasphemy and refuses to recognize Dionysus as a god. He has come to Thebes in human form to vindicate his mother. He is here for revenge. He is also the god of wine and drunkenness, and has inspired all sorts of depravity and revelry in the women of Thebes. Appropriately enough, I read the play after drinking a good amount of something called Brauburger that the local diner sells by the can.

Anyway, the older man Cadmus, and much of the family are under the spell of the God, but his cousin (unaware of course) Pentheus is not amused at this proto-rock star bewitching all of the young women and foolish old men. I laughed aloud when Pentheus calls him a “girl-faced stranger”: exactly the type of seductive femme male that makes teenage girls moist while bewildering and enraging their older male relations. As Pentheus observes of Dionysius: “thy hair is long because thou hast never been a wrestler, flowing right down thy cheeks most wantonly; thy skin is white to help thee gain thy end, not tanned by ray of sun, but kept within the shade, as thou goest in quest of love with beauty's bait.” Byron, Bowie, Elvis, Bolan. In other words, What could they possibly see in him?! He looks like a girl! Well, exactly.

His rites are performed at night, reminding one of both revelers on New Year’s Eve and the unhinged madness of Nazi night rallies. Pentheus has Dionysius bound and put in the horse stables, thinking that he can trap the women who come to worship him. Of course, he’s mistaken. The Bacchantes are wild women, under his spell they can rend cattle with their bare hands, described in a horrifying scene that equals anything in Clive Barker. Strips of flesh hang dripping like laundry from pine branches, villages are pillaged, packs of women chase men into the forests like some fundamentalist nightmare about feminism, or Bealtemania as directed by George Romero.
Dionysus destroys Pentheus’s house. He then convinces Pentheus to go among the bacchantes dressed in drag to be on the safe side: better to temporarily adopt womanhood than to permanently lose one’s manhood! He finally bewitches him to follow a bull throughout Thebes dressed in drag; the gods have an easier time trifling with men than vice-versa.

Pentheus spies on the women and is captured by them, torn limb from limb by the maddened group led by his own mother. Finally, Pentheus’s severed head is paraded through Thebes on a thyrsus wielded by his dear old possessed mom, Agave. One is never spy on mysteries that they haven’t been initiated into. He has violated this law and, “whatever comes of God, or in time's long annals, has grown into a law upon a natural basis, this is sovereign.”

The story thus ends in violence, death, exile, and sorrow: something Nietzsche was all too aware of in his writings on the Dionysian/ will to power, and countless rock concert riots have reiterated. Once they’ve sobered up the house of Cadmus realizes their madness among the bacchants. “O grief that has no bounds, too cruel for mortal eye! 'tis murder ye have done with your hapless hands.” See also: Weimar Germany, Altamont.

But, why? The end of the play is a bit confusing to me. The bacchants have committed horrible murder, but if the play is a morality tale, it still doesn’t argue against drunkenness or lust. We are still supposed to worship Dionysus. Nietzsche’s Dionysian might end in the violence of the will unleashed, but the Apollonian often ends in the cold crisp lines of totalitarianism. If Pentheus is a reactionary, the libertines are punished alike.

Or is the message simply that the gods, and hence nature, are not to be trifled with? Perhaps we should worship Dionysus within the limits of moderation, so that we don’t become bluenose reactionaries or lascivious monsters. The play contains the good advice that we should also refuse to challenge the gods: “This is the life that saves all pain, if a man confines his thoughts to human themes, as is his mortal nature, making no pretence where heaven is concerned.” He who decides to battle with madness has already lost to madness.

6 comments:

The Pagan Temple said...

Did it strike you that one part of the play was more of a comedy, and from there it became more of a tragedy? I've never read it, but my understanding of it is the two different sides represent the light and the dark sides of the god, and that states of intoxication can result in either one of the sides manifesting, depending on the circumstances, and I guess on the person.

So, if you are open to the God and true to yourself, you will experience the more ecstatic, joyous experience, whereas if you are a Pentheus kind of person, you will illicit the more negative reaction. Evidently Euripides must have realized that being intoxicated allows a person's true nature to surface, free of the usual self and societal imposed inhibitions.

Rufus said...

Yeah, it struck me as sort of ambivalent about it all. There's definitely the sense that paying no tribute to the god of wine is no way to live your life either. But I certainly visualized the first half as something out of National Lampoon and then turning dark.

Incidentally, you totally need to read it. I'm sure it's online and it's right up your alley.

The Pagan Temple said...

Yeah, I was wondering if it might be on-line. I'll look for it. I might do a post about it somewhere down the line. Thanks.

narrator said...

I'm no Greek scholar, but the concepts of ambivalent gods, gods who act randomly at times, seem difficult for those raised in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition to ever fully embrace (though Judaism had this ambivalence historically - Job is devastated because of a divine wager? David is god's favourite no matter what he does?).

It is hard to breakthrough our training in absolutism to find the relativistic morality tales which seem to reside in Greek drama. "Western" morality tales focus on what you should not do. The ancient Greek morality tales, like many of the ancient Celtic ones, tend to focus on the things you cannot do anything about.

rufus said...

I tend to think of it in terms of a natural disaster. Christianity, for me, offers a worse explanation for things like earthquakes or volcanoes: God had some good reason to do this. With the gods, it's really more like they behave as they wish- it seems more in line with the unpredictable power of nature to me.

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