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.

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“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.

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Félix Soulès (1857-1904), Bacchante à la chèvre

After Dionysus allowed himself to be arrested in his disguise as the leader of the Dionysian priests, he and is immediately interrogated by the skeptical Pentheus. It is soon clear from his questions, that Pentheus himself is also deeply interested in the Dionysiac rites. When Dionysus, in his disguise refuses to fully reveal the rites to him, Pentheus has him locked up. Being a god, Dionysus quickly breaks free and promptly razes Pentheus’ palace to the ground in a giant earthquake and fire.

A herdsman brings news for Pentheus from Mount Cithaeron that the Maenads are performing incredible feats and miracles. The guards are unable to harm them with their weapons, while the women appear to be able to defeat them with only sticks. Now Pentheus is becoming even more eager to see these ecstatic women. Wishing to humiliate and punish him, Dionysus convinces Pentheus to dress as a Maenad to avoid detection and go to the rites himself.

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Aleksander Kotsis – Bachantka 1873

Dionysus then takes his vengeance a step further than just humiliation by helping Pentheus up to the top of a tree for a better view of the Maenads. After seeing that Pentheus is sitting comfortably on the tree, Dionysus alerts the women to the snooper. Driven wild by this intrusion, the women pull Pentheus who quickly realized that he is in fact trapped in the tree. The women then proceeds to rip Pentheus’ body apart, piece by piece.

Still possessed by the Dionysian ecstacy Agave, Pentheus’ mother, arrives back at the palace carrying the head of her own son, believing it to be the head of a mountain lion which she had killed with her bare hands. She proudly displays Pentheus’ severed head as a hunting trophy to her horrified father Cadmus. But, as Dionysus‘ influence begins to wear off, Agave realizes with horror of what she has done.

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“A Dedication to Bacchus” by Lawrence Alma Tadema (1889 )

The term “Maenads” also refers to the women who were driven mad by Dionysus because they refused to worship him. Dionysus’ favored punishment methods seem to be driving these women mad and force them to participate in horrific rites against their will. After his exploits in Thebes, Dionysus went to Argos where all the women in the city joined in his worship except for the daughters of King Proetus. Dionysus punished them by driving them mad until they killed the infants who were nursing at their breasts. He also punished the three daughters of Minyas (Alcathoe, Leucippe and Arsippe), who rejected Dionysus’ rites to remain true to their household duties. While they were working, they were startled by the sounds of invisible drums, flutes and cymbals. As punishment for their resistance to Dionysus, the three daughters of Minyas became madwomen and drew a lot to choose the child of one of their and tearing the child to pieces, as the women on the mountain did to bulls.

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Attic red-figure pelike – Satyr and maenad

Despite Dionysus’ cruel punishments, the average ancient women still found some affinity with the Maenads. During a war in the middle of the third century BC,  a group of entranced Maenads lost their way and arrived in Amphissa, a city near Delphi. There, the Maenads sank down exhausted in the middle of a market place before being overpowered by a deep sleep. The women of Amphissa formed a protective ring around the Maenads and stayed there to protect them while they slept. When the Maenads finally awoke, the women of Amphissa arranged for them to return home safely.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, likely to have been written in the 2nd century, tells us that the Dionysiac festival was held in a fifth-century BC. Temple surmounted by tripods in which each of the ten Attic tribes participated in contests. Prizes would be awarded to the victorious by the state. The Palestinian city of Scythopolis was also connected to the worship of Dionysus. Pliny’s Historia Naturalis tells us that the name Scythopolis was derived from the Scythians who was put in that area by Dionysus himself in order to protect the tomb of his nurse who was buried there.

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Maenad riding a goat (1796)

Cultist rites associated with worship of Dionysus were characterized by maniacal dancing to the sound of crashing cymbals and loud music. The revelers would drunkenly whirl, scream and incite each other to greater and greater heights of ecstacy. The purpose of this rite was to achieve a state of ecstacy so high that the celebrants’ souls would be temporarily freed from their earthly bodies, thus making them able to meet with Dionysus to gain a glimpse of they would someday experience in eternity.

Monochrome Photo of Woman

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