What Could the Divinities of Euripides’ BACCHAE Have Been Thinking of?

George Anastaplo


            The divinities of Euripides’ Baechae include not only Dionysus but also, in the background, Zeus and Hera. After all, it had been Zeus who impregnated (and then incinerated) Dionysus’ mother (Semele). And it had been Zeus’ wife, Hera, who had devised that incineration.

Indeed, Dionysus (also called Bromius, Evius, and Bacchus) has to insist at the end of the play (l. 1349), “Long ago my father Zeus ordained these things.” It can be wondered (at least by us) what Zeus had originally expected from his encounter with the Theban maiden, Semele. It can also be wondered what should have been expected when a young ruler, Pentheus, confronted an unprecedented Asian invasion of Thebes.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary entry on Semele includes these elements (of which Euripides seems to have been aware):

Semele, otherwise called Thyone in mythology, a daughter of Cadmus and mother of Dionysus…. Her story consists almost wholly of her relations with Zeus and Dionysus. The former’s association with her aroused Hera’s jealousy, and the goddess, disguising herself, advised her to test the divinity of her lover by bidding him to come to her in his true shape. She persuaded him to give whatever she should ask, and he was thus tricked into granting a request which he knew would result in her death. The fire of his thunderbolts killed her, but made her son immortal… Zeus put the unborn child in his thigh, whence he was born at full time…

The entry on Pentheus can also remind us of Euripides’ play:

Pentheus, in my theology, son of Agave, daughter of Cadmus, and her husband Echion. When Dionysus returned to Thebes from his conquests in the East, Pentheus [the ruler] denied his divinity and refused to let him be worshipped. But the supernatural strength of the women who had gone out to worship Dionysus was too much for his soldiers, and he consequently (by advice of a mysterious stranger, the god in disguise or another) went out to spy upon them. He was torn to pieces, his mother, who in her frenzy took him for a beast, leading the rest. It is possible that this goes back to some ritual killing…

In the background of these stories is the career of Cadmus, who can be recalled in this fashion by the Oxford Classical Dictionary:

Cadmus, in mythology, son of Agenor, king of Tyre. When his sister Europa disappeared, Agenor sent Cadmus with his brothers to seek her, with instructions not to return without her. Cadmus arrived at Delphi and was advised to settle where a cow, which he should find on leaving the temple, lay down. She led him to the site of Thebes, where he built the Cadmea, the citadel of the later town. To get water he killed a dragon, the offspring of Ares, and had to undergo a term of servitude. By advice of Athena, he sowed the dragon’s teeth, and there came up a harvest of armed men, whom he killed by setting them to fight one another. Five survived and became the ancestors of the nobility of Thebes…He married Hermonia, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite…Their children were Ino, Semele, Autonoe, and Agave…Cadmus introduced writing into Greece…In their old age he and Harmonia went away to Illyria and finally were turned into serpents.


            We can wonder what Zeus expected, “in the long run,” from his liaison with Semele. We can wonder as well, of course, what Hera expected from her intervention. After all, she does plot a murder here.

In the long run, of course, Hera contributed to a series of events that would produce a divinity (in Dionysus) who would far surpass her in public worship. How thoughtful, we can wonder, are the divinities encountered in these stories? Are they essentially “persons” characterized by actions, not by thoughtfulness?

Is this a distinction that Euripides, from his association with Socrates, must have appreciated? Consider the suggestion made in the course of my remarks, “What Else Might Pericles, Lincoln and Churchill Have Said and Done?” I presumed on that occasion to suggest,

One can be reminded, upon encountering the shortcomings of political leaders, how limited even the most gifted of them may have to be, not least with respect both to what can truly be known and to how much one is apt to be simply open to the truth (or indeed capable of recognizing and developing it)—that is, how limited one can be when one is moved ultimately with a view to action (however momentous and even highminded that action might be), not with a view to thinking about and perhaps even understanding the most enduring matters.


            How should we assess Dionysus’ ability to think about and perhaps to understand the most enduring matters? Consider, for example, his assessment of how his mother (Semele) had been regarded by her parents and sisters when she found herself pregnant. A desperate girl’s claim of divine intervention is rarely plausible in such circumstances.

And what, in turn, did her death by thunderbolt seem to say about her remarkable claim? Zeus himself had not “bothered” to provide any indication, at the time of Semale’s spectacular end, about what had “really” happened. Nor, it seems, had he bothered to moderate or in any to question Dionysus’ animosity on behalf of his mother.

It can even seem appalling to us that Dionysus could be as ruthless as he is shown in the play to be in dealing with his grandparents (Cadmus and his wife), with his aunts (Agave and her sisters), and with his first cousin (Pentheus). Indeed, is there not something childish—horribly childish—in how Dionysus proceeds? What is suggested about “a world view” in which such a divinity (however eventually tamed) can be so prominent?


            Particularly ruthless, of course, is what is done to Pentheus. That he should find himself being torn apart by his own mother (even if “only” off-stage) is horrible enough. But earlier, on stage, he is degraded in the speech and costume imposed on him by Dionysus. A complete demolition of Pentheus in full public view, is thus orchestrated by this divinity before he is physically torn apart off-stage.

Indeed, Dionysus, in his deception of Pentheus, can be seen to have adapted to his own desire for revenge a variation upon the deadly stratagem that had been employed by Hera in deceiving Dionysus’ mother decades earlier. It can be noticed, in passing here, that the uglier aspects of any resort to capital punishment may be seen in how Dionysus proceeds against Pentheus. What is revealed thereby about the soul of the executioner, if not also of the judge, on such an occasion.

It never seems to occur to this Dionysus that a community’s ruler might properly (or, at least, understandably) be troubled by outside influences that can lead to the sustained commotions obviously stirred up by Dionysus among the women of Thebes. How, we can also wonder, did Euripides expect his audience to regard such “vigilance” on the part of a ruler? And what allowances should be made here on behalf of a young ruler confronting an unprecedented “invasion”?


            This invasion is, of course, from the East. An Athenian audience could have been expected to remember what had happened when Thebes had encountered another massive invasion from Asia a half-century before the staging of Euripides’ The Bacchae. On that occasion a vulnerable Thebes collaborated with the Persians, perhaps the kind of accommodation that Cadmus and Tireseas seem to have urged on a headstrong Pentheus.

The other great drama grounded in Thebes turns, of course, around the careers of Oedipus and his successors. In striking contrast to the horror associated with the patricide and the incest that Oedipus wanted so desperately to avoid, there is the self-righteous promotion by Dionysus of the fierce dismemberment by a deluded mother of her son. We can wonder how the audience was expected to respond to the gleeful satisfaction that Dionysus is shown to have felt on that occasion (the kind of satisfaction expressed by no one when Oedipus’ dreadful deeds were exposed to public view).

Are the limitations of Thebes indicated as well by Agave’s expectation that her son would want to celebrate what she had done in fiercely ripping apart a wild beast? Both Athens and Thebes could be said to have populations sprung from the very earth of each polis. But in the case of Thebes, the leading figures of that population had come from the teeth of the dragon that had been planted there.


            When the planted dragon teeth “matured” into human beings, a fierce civil war followed, much reducing the number of men thus generated from the earth. The Dionysus of The Bacchae (himself a descendent on his mother’s side from those men) has his full share of that fierceness. Perhaps we are not intended to be surprised that his Aunt Agave can be fierce as well.

What is surprising is that Dionysus should have resented as much (and as long) as he did how his mother was treated by her relatives in Thebes. And yet, is not what Dionysus deliberately does to the royal family of Thebes equivalent to what Zeus had done with his thunderbolt to Semele? On both occasions, the victims were induced to see more than was good for them.

Why cannot Dionysus recognize that his own father (Zeus) and his stepmother (that is, Hera) were primarily responsible for Semele’s dreadful end? A modern analyst might even suspect that Dionysus is as vicious as he is in on this occasion precisely because he cannot do anything satisfying to Zeus and Hera. Here, as elsewhere, we can be reminded of how limited the understanding can be of “men of action” (including among the recognized divinities of one’s day).


            The violence exploited in this play is all, or virtually all, within the family. It begins with the thunderbolt of Zeus for Semele (if not even earlier with her seduction) and ends (at least for the time being) with what Agave and her sisters do when they run wild. What may appear on the surface as the consequences of chance frenzies are revealed to the audience as the results of a determined malice.

Does all this happen to reflect the despair of Euripides during his self-imposed exile in Thrace? He had theretofore watched, up close, what Athens and the other prominent poleis of Greece were doing to themselves during the Peloponnesian War. What, it might even be wondered, ancient grievances were they so intent on avenging, no matter what the cost?

It might usefully be wondered as well what Euripides, as playwright, thought of the “playwright” he conjured up in Dionysus. It is this god who organizes the “actions” for this fiercely bloody occasion, providing the costumes and parts to achieve the desired effects. Indeed, there may be even seen in Dionysus a playwright who travels with his own chorus.


            It is noticed in the Oxford Classical Dictionary that one of Aristophanes’ comedies contained some parody of one of Euripides’ tragedies (Erechtheus). We can suggest in turn that Aristophanes’ Frogs contained a parody of Euripides’ Bacchae. Here, too, there was a playwright who lamented what the Greek poleis were recklessly doing to each other.

In the Frogs, Dionysus is much tamer than Euripides’ Dionysus. Indeed, he is somewhat apprehensive, perhaps even cowardly, during his mission to Hades to secure (from among the Dead) a much-needed playwright for a desperate Athens. He himself begins with a preference for Euripides, but he is obliged to settle for Aeschylus (with Sophocles the seemed choice).

We are left here with a challenge for anyone reliably sensitive to the Greek of Fifth Century Athens. What echoes are there, in the Frogs, of the language used in the Bacchae with respect to Dionysus? This inquiry could include as well comparisons of the language of the choruses in the two plays, comparisons that would provide in effect a commentary on Euripides and his divinities by another first-rate playwright.


            Euripides, we are told, won first prize (posthumously) when his last plays were performed in Athens. This would have been in the Theatre of Dionysus. Did, we can wonder, potentates of the Bacchic cult in Athens preside over this occasion?

By this time, of course, the religion associated with Dionysus was much tamer than it had evidently been in its origins. But, it must have been wondered by some of the more thoughtful of its champions, what elements of the “original” Dionysian fury remained to be resurrected in extreme circumstances? Was something of that fury evident in the prosecution of Socrates for impiety during the decade following Euripides’ death.

It might be wondered by us in turn what elements of the Dionysus saga came to be exploited in religious movements for centuries, if not even for millennia, thereafter. We can recall, for instance, what Augustine could suggest about the intimations of the True Way somehow revealed to pagan poets. May we even see in the epidemic of ferocious witch-hunts, millennia later, something of the Terror of which Euripides’ Dionysus was an early “master”?

These remarks were prepared for a meeting, November 3, 2012, of the Staff of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago. See, also, George Anastaplo, Reflections on Life, Death, and the Constitution (Lexington Books, 2009), pp. 17-24 (“Death and Resurrection in Euripides’ Bacchae”).

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