I have been teaching Euripides’ play The Bacchae recently, one of the more disturbing tragedies in a Greek canon rife with disturbing subject matter. For an excavation of the social and psychological implications of incest, fratricide, matricide, patricide, and cannibalism, nobody beats the Greeks. And for a brutal examination of the phenomenology of new cultural paradigms, nothing can beat The Bacchae.
The core of the story centers around the arrival of a new cult in Thebes, the cult of Dionysus. The god of the vine and of wine, Dionysus (Bacchus in Latin) inspires many to take up his worship, and has particular success with initiating women into his mysteries. Women in his cult have great power. At times their power is expressed through the fecundity and strength lent them by the god. They scratch their nails over the ground and rivers of milk spring forth. They thrust their ceremonial wands (called thyrsi) into the soil and fountains of wine appear. At other times, they display their power through more violent means: they dismember cattle with their bare hands, tear infants from their homes, and even slaughter their own children while intoxicated with the god.
Cultural historians and scholars of Greek have recognized in the story the transmission of the cultivation of the vine and the accompanying cult of its god as it spread southward from Thrace (Asia Minor) and the attendant cultural anxieties that it must have triggered in its new home. Eventually, the cult of Dionysus found great success in Greece and the Dionysian Mysteries, celebrated at Athens, were the sight of a great yearly festival marked by initiation into the rite and the presentation of plays, many of which are still performed.
In The Bacchae, Pentheus, the young ruler of Thebes, distrusts the new cult—even though his mother Agave and his grandfather Cadmus are initiates. Pentheus is a bit of a traditionalist and views with suspicion this new god who makes women act strangely and reveals his power by releasing his devotees from self-control and social decorum. Pentheus vows to banish the cult and arrests the young man encouraging worship of the new god—a young man who happens to be Dionysus in disguise.
Pentheus meets with some disparagement throughout the play. The blind seer Tiresias upbraids him for hubris: “though your sick imagination makes you think it, don’t believe you’re sane.” Cadmus admonishes his grandson, saying, “Don’t break tradition…even if the god isn’t a god, say he is: it’s a pious lie.” And Dionysus, the god himself, tells Pentheus, “You’re unholy. You can’t see.” In order to punish Pentheus, Dionysus intoxicates him, makes him dress in women’s clothes, and leads him to a place in the fields where the frenzied bacchantes (Pentheus’ mother and her fellow worshippers) tear the young king to shreds with their bare hands.
I think this is exactly what happens when new cults rise to power. And they don’t necessarily need to have anything to do with religion. These cults start by ridiculing the mores that preceded their arrival. Then they humiliate those who adhere to the customs they consider passé, or irrelevant, or absurd. They offer intoxication and power, the intoxication of power. They take the young from their traditions, their metaphorical homes. They slaughter their own children, figuratively and literally. They systematically attempt to dismantle culture in name of the cult, and everyone is expected to play along. If cooperation is not forthcoming, they have other methods. And everywhere we look are pious lies.
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD is a professor of English at Marygrove College.