Unless otherwise indicated, numbers in parentheses are line numbers.
Dionysus, god of wine, returns with an Asian following to the place of his conception: Thebes. His mother was one of Cadmus’ daughters (Cadmus being Thebes’ legendary founder). Asia now understands his creed and dances accordingly. Thebes still rejects him. Its current ruler, Pentheus, will attempt to imprison Dionysus’ followers, the Bacchae (the Chorus), and find himself tempted, humiliated, and torn limb-from-limb by the wiles of the god.
BELIEF & KNOWLEDGE
Zeus could not reveal himself truly to Dionysus’ mother, Semele, without destroying her. ‘To believe’ and ‘to know’ are very different things (following Benardete 136: “Belief and knowledge are of different orders”). Belief in a simple sense, the one used for puzzles in epistemology classes, may translate into knowledge. But does knowledge convert into belief? This is a political problem in some respect. Perhaps Pentheus’ exaggerated manliness is not just a response to wanton lust (221-223) or seductive womanliness (233-237). “Manliness” might be where belief meets knowledge, as noble citizens who defend the city are created. They think they know and thus effect reality. (This is just a starting point for thinking about Pentheus.)
Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, has some very interesting lines:
Even if this Dionysus is no god,
as you assert, persuade yourself that he is.
The fiction is a noble one, for Semele will seem
to be the mother of a god, and this confers
no small distinction on our family. (333-337)
Cadmus is all but admitting that his killing a dragon and sowing the teeth into the ground to create Theban men is the noble lie (see Oedipus at Colonus for more). No wonder he will change into a serpent himself and we are to take this seriously. (1131) He continues:
that dreadful death your cousin Actaeon died
when those man-eating hounds he had raised himself
savaged him and tore his body limb from limb
because he boasted that his prowess in the hunt surpassed
the skill of Artemis.
Do not let his fate be yours.
Here, let me wreathe your head with leaves of ivy.
Then come with us and glorify the god. (338-344)
Hubris is violation of the noble lie: exactly what this means is not clear yet. Cadmus wants to crown Pentheus, make him also a Bacchant. Drama as we know it arose from Dionysiac rites.
DIONYSUS AS POET
The transition from foundation to preservation may parallel that of myth to drama. What was once declared true of nature, in both cases, becomes a matter of conventionality. Perhaps one can avoid unnecessary complications and ban certain dramatists outright. Maybe a regime can do well with people like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes, who seem to give the city no trouble worth speaking about.
Let us say Dionysus is bringing drama to Thebes:
…it is in a sense the same Dionysus who schemes to reveal himself to the Thebans and is the god of the Attic theater. The Bacchae is almost a tragedy about tragedy: it begins with the god’s explanation of his human disguise. Unless the god of the theater goes masked, he cannot reveal himself to be the god he is. (Benardete 136)
Benardete cites the “various formulations Dionysus gives of his purpose.” This is a number of things, not the least of which that Dionysus himself is confused about belief and knowledge (Benardete 136). One has to wonder about the poet being under his own spell: this has to be case for fiction to work, to have the internal consistency it needs. But this is just one indication that poor Pentheus is being completely set up, that Pentheus’ inflexibility is not the problem as much as Dionysus’ complete command of the situation. Benardete goes on to say:
The worship of Dionysus cannot consist with the recognition of Dionysus. The Chorus worship Dionysus according to convention (430-33, 712, 890-96); they hear but never see Dionysus (577, 590). Pentheus comes to obey Dionysus, but he then sees him him as a bull (920-22); he does not submit to him as Dionysus. (Benardete 136)
Pentheus wants to know before he believes (Benardete 138). That’s not how divinity works: if you know the god, either you or the god is destroyed. “The gods, however native, are forever strangers; they can cease to be strangers if they are willing to give up their being for their being believed (Benardete 137).” We have speculated that Pentheus’ manliness may be a form of contrivance: believe and you will produce a state of affairs you know to be true. Dionysus (especially as god/poet) is all contrivance. These two are at odds because neither knows what it means to know. What is believed is what is apparent:
[Dionysus to the Chorus]: He seemed to think that he [Pentheus] was chaining me but never once
so much as touched my hands. He fed on his desires.
Inside the stable he intended as my jail, instead of me,
he found a bull and tried to rope its knees and hooves.
He was panting desperately, biting his lips with his teeth,
his whole body drenched with sweat, while I sat nearby,
quietly watching. But at that moment Bacchus came,
shook the palace and touched his mother’s grave with tongues
of fire. Imagining the palace was in flames,
Pentheus went rushing here and there, shouting to his slaves
to bring him water. Every hand was put to work: in vain.
Then, afraid I might escape, he suddenly stopped short,
drew his sword and rushed to the palace. There, it seems,
Bromius [Dionysus] had made a shape, a phantom which resembled me,
within the court. Bursting in, Pentheus thrust and stabbed
at that thing of gleaming air as though he thought it me.
And then, once again, the god humiliated him.
He razed the palace to the ground where it lies, shattered
in utter ruin… (617-634)
“There are altogether four gods in this account” (Benardete 137). Dionysus is speaking; one rattled the palace; the maker of the apparition; the apparition/watcher. What is certain is that the palace was rattled and the nearby mother’s grave was set afire. The poet is the rest of the account and its accounting. It is necessary that the speaker Dionysus, to keep concealed from the Chorus, explain the god made an apparition of him (Benardete 137). We the audience know the god to be his image. The immediate audience, the Chorus, believes the image to be a product of the god.
Images alone do not lead to knowledge or conversion. Ultimately, Dionysus will convert Pentheus, at least for a moment. He will do it by exciting his curiosity about the Bacchae: don’t you want to see what they are like? Manliness depends on womanliness; Pentheus perhaps wants to imagine them being punished (Benardete 139). Most importantly, he wants to see for himself. Pentheus’ desire for nobility and over-eager justice tempts him. He reaches a base level. He parades through the streets in drag unashamed; he has seriously contemplated rape (961-962; 952-954). The god as poet is the real issue. It is true the Dionysian cult seems to tap into something primal. The Chorus talks about their activity as “the rite of Cybele the Mother:” this is the Earth Mother, Gaia (78). Are man and woman fundamental categories which dictate politics? That literally depends on a mythical conception of nature whose place in convention (i.e. drama) we are in the midst of investigating. Poor Pentheus, who has his head ripped off by his own mother, has two stories told about what happened. The Chorus (the Bacchae) celebrates his death, giving the impression that he found himself betrayed and saw Dionysus no god at all:
Uncontrollable, the unbeliever goes,
in spitting rage, rebellious and amok,
madly assaulting the mysteries of god,
profaning the rites of the mother of god.
Against the unassailable he runs, with rage
obsessed. Headlong he runs to death. (996-1001)
One could say this refers to Pentheus’ behavior well before he chose to see for himself. But the complete absence of anything like the Messenger’s account has me wondering (1113-1121). There, he asks his mother to recognize who he is. She cannot and kills him.
Drama’s power stems from being like the primal myth. This makes it dangerous in a way almost nothing else is. Dionysus planned to reveal himself in a way Zeus couldn’t. His revelation was dramatic: Thebes was a play. One can argue that Dionysus never really was there. Pentheus’ fascination with something that gripped his citizens led to his demise. The poet can disappear into the background of his creation. But what did he create? The end of the play:
[Chorus]: The gods have many shapes.
The gods bring many things
to their accomplishment.
And what was most expected
has not been accomplished.
But god has found his way
for what no man expected.
So ends the play.
The Chorus unabashedly reduces piety to populism. Whatever they think makes them feel good is godly. Emphasis on “they think;” this is not wanton indulgence of lust. That is what Pentheus thinks he is up against; we know the Bacchae are actually chaste (687-689). The Chorus thinks they have returned to the roots of religious inspiration, that they have found what is fundamentally natural and good. It is music to which they can dance. Their miracles are of being freed (shackles falling away) and finding water, wine, milk and honey everywhere. They nurse baby animals. They are Mother Earth. Their womanly strength tears apart herds and beats back armies.
How is this not gross impiety on the part of the Bacchae? They seem to be claiming to be the first god, the principle of change and transformation itself. One has to look at some of their more developed views to see this as a political statement. They are consistently exaggerating Pentheus’ wrongs. They see themselves as humble, longing only for the few good things man wants. They are dismissive of “wisdom” (387-401) and see simple conquest as most divine and honorable (875-881). They see Pentheus (the legitimate ruler) as power obsessed. At what point are the gods the city’s gods?
The same point at which the gods are the people’s gods. This is the true, primal eros with which conventions actually work. This primal eros is not actually eros: it depends on what is apparent to all. There’s no doubt the Bacchae are self-delusional and will tear apart their own children. Sophocles presented the law as doing that in Antigone. But one can go further back to the question of “What gods does a city worship?” Worship itself is going to create a drama whereby people find what they want in the action and the only agreed upon principles will be nonsense. Benardete notes that Pentheus joins the action late (Benardete 138). What if someone came into the Bacchae late and didn’t hear Dionysus’ initial speech, declaring his intent and establishing the main action of the play? The play would seem absolutely crazy to them. We, who have been initiated, see god made man. We are the Bacchae, just as we do not recognize the god in our midst.
Most troubling for us, as a contemporary audience: the ideas that comprise monotheism seem to be at stake. This is a universal worship that transcends the city and treats its own origin as alien to it. There are rituals which are not merely suggestive of communion, as Bacchus brings to the fore the notion of “one flesh.” This might be worth looking to in terms of illustrating the famous “Platonism for the masses” complaint. But, looking to a more immediate concern, the specific point of contention: do the Bacchae ever really listen? Do they hear anything they don’t want to hear? The only time Pentheus’ mother truly listens is when she looks away from the earth at the sky because of Cadmus. The city does not exist for no reason: it provides security and can provide justice to a degree. It provides a setting where speech can matter. The tragic poets, like Aeschylus and Sophocles, tried to explicate the divine origins of the city and condemn impiety. The trouble is the latter. People see the action on stage and roughly think they know what the story is already (an evangelical friend once talked to me about how difficult it was to get people at his church to understand the concept of the Trinity). They’re going to condemn impiety for nearly every other reason except the ones you, as poet, are developing. Poetry looks like it came from elsewhere, but its origin was coeval with the political order.
Benardete, Seth. “On Greek Tragedy.” The Argument of the Action. ed. Burger and Davis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 135-142
Euripides, “Bacchae.” The Complete Greek Tragedies: Euripides V, ed. Grene & Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.