Divinity Beneath the Madness

Side view silhouette of female throwing head back and raising hand with spread fingers while standing in dark room against dim green light

Historians often write them off as mad women. The name Maenad evenliterally translates as the “raving ones”. But these women are much more than that. The Maenads are actually sacred worshippers and holy priestesses to the god of wine, madness and frenzy – Dionysus. Every aspect of the Maenads’ appearance echoes the god they worship. They carry the thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel covered with ivy vines also carried by Dionysus. They wore the skin of a panther and a put snake over their hair, both sacred animals of Dionysus. They worshipped Dionysus with hymns, rites and having their souls initiated in the Bacchic revels by dancing in inspired frenzy while accompanying themselves with the heavy beat of drums and performing holy purifications.

In his Theogony, Hesiod tells us that that Semele, the daughter of Cadmus the king of Thebes, bore Dionysus prematurely after having an affair with Zeus. Hera, angry at her husband’s betrayal, convinces Semele to see Zeus in his godly form. Zeus appeares to her as a lightning bolt and kills her instantly. However, Zeus manages to save their unborn son Dionysus. He hides the baby Dionysus from Hera by sewing the foetus up in his own thigh until Dionysus is ready to be born.

Bacchante Arthur Hacker.jpg
“Bacchante” by Arthur Hacker (1913)

A continuation of Dionysus’ relationship with his mother’s side of the family is found in Euripides’ “the Bacchae”. Semele‘s family, particularly her sister Agave, are convinced that Semele died as a result of her blasphemous lies about the identity of her baby’s father. The young god is therefore spurned by his own family. Therefore, Dionysus travels throughout Asia gathering a cult of female worshippers (the Maenads). He later returns to Thebes, his birthplace, to take revenge on the ruling house of Cadmus (his grandfather) for their refusal to worship him and to vindicate his mother.

As the play begins, Dionysos has driven the women of Thebes into an ecstatic frenzy. These women includes his own aunts Agave, Autonoe and Ino. He sends them dancing and hunting on Mount Cithaeron. Although some of the older men of the city, such as Cadmus himself and the old blind seer Tiresias, have also become enthusiastic devotees of the Bacchic rituals, the young King Pentheus (Agave’s son who has recently taken over the throne from Cadmus) scolds them harshly. Pentheus then effectively bans Dionysian worship by ordering his soldiers to arrest anyone else found engaging in the rites. He sees the women’s divinely-caused insanity as nothing but drunken cavorting and an attempt to escape the mores and legal codes which regulates Theban society.

Félix Soulès Bacchante à la chèvre marbre 1.jpg
Félix Soulès (1857-1904), Bacchante à la chèvre

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