Prof. Deanne Williams
October 4th, 2017
Divine or Dictatorial: The Debunking of Dionysus
Euripides’ The Bacchae is embroiled in religious ecstasy, overt sexuality, and ritual madness. Who better to cast as the protagonist of this tragedy than the Greek god Dionysus, who is the personification of these themes? And while he may be a holy figure in Greek mythology, the version of Dionysus depicted in this play is far from perfect.
In The Bacchae, Dionysus is meant to symbolize the logic of duality. He is outwardly beautiful but inwardly ugly, allowing himself to be consumed by his anger and desire for revenge. He has many supernatural powers and is able to assume multiple forms, appearing both as a god and a mortal throughout the play’s course. This dichotomy of mortality and immortality is also reflected in his birth, as he is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Semele. His origins are Greek and Lydian, and his cult is rooted in Asia Minor. Through the names his cult members address him by, we learn of Dionysus’ relationship with humankind: The bacchants refer to him as Bromios (which translates to “the roaring one”) and Lysios (which translates to “the god of letting go”). Through the use of his powers, Dionysus gives humans the ability to forget their problems by indulging in wine, relinquish their identities by attending the theatre, and surrender their individuality by participating in cult worship. By enabling humans to let go, he introduces them to the fun side of life. However, this is only if letting go is practiced in moderation… Otherwise it, like everything affiliated with Dionysus, can quickly go awry.
As there are no limits to Dionysus’ powers, they can end up consuming life itself rather than providing humans with a momentary sense of relief. This is incredibly apparent with the influence he exerts over the bacchants, who have lost all self-control and bend to his every destructive whim. They have been denied of their sanity, judgment, and even humanity to fulfill Dionysus’ wrath against the family of Kadmos. This portrayal of Dionysus as calculated, vengeful, and deliberate underpins the inadequacy of the gods, humanizing them by portraying them as flawed.
A perfect example of Dionysus’ callousness is the final scene of The Bacchae, in which Kadmos is grieving the death of his grandson Pentheus and attempts to make sense of everything that’s happened over the play’s course. Kadmos tells Dionysus “Now we know, but you go too far against us”, which Dionysus counters by saying “Yes, for I, a god by birth, was insulted by you”. Dionysus feels justified in his punishment of Kadmos and Agave because the majority of the house of Kadmos refuses to accept him as a god. Kadmos realizes that Pentheus was wrong to oppose Dionysus, but also believes that Dionysus is being too harsh towards both his own family and all of the citizens of Thebes. He is the only character to directly admonish Dionysus, ordering the...