"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

20 May 2014

The Bacchae, by Euripides

Dionysus: Like it or not, this city has to learn
            what it is to go through true conversion
            to the rites of Bacchus.
So do I defend my mother’s cause,
            making mortal men endorse the fact I am a god
            and born to her of Zeus.
You know that Cadmus makes his grandson Pentheus king,
            with all the kingly prerequisites;
            that Pentheus opens war on deity in me,
            wards me off his sacrifice,
            cuts me from his prayers.
Very well,
            I’ll show myself to him and all of Thebes
            a god indeed. (397)

Tiresias: mankind has two blessings:
            the goddess Demeter is the one—
            Earth, that is, call her what you will—
            who keeps us alive with solid food;
            the other is Semele’s son,
            who came afterwards and matched her food with wine.
He is was who turned the grape into a flowing draft
            and proffered it to mortals;
            so when they fill themselves with liquid vine
            they put an end to grief.
Besides, it gives them sleep
            which drowns the sadness of each day;
            there is no other anodyne for sorrow.
So when we pour libations out
            it is the god himself we pour out to the gods,
            and by this bring blessings on mankind. (407)

Pentheus: Is this the first place, then, you’ve brought your god?
Dionysus: By no means: every land in Asia celebrates his dance.
Pentheus: Naturally! Foreigners have much less sense than Greeks. (415-416)

Agave: Father, you see how everything for me is overturned.
Everything is deserted, dark,
            and who but myself put out the light?
You brutal hands, smoking with gore,
            once you washed and sped this baby to his bed.
Wicked hands that should have decked a young man for his bride,
            now you dress a corpse to speed him to the world below. (450)

Agave: My son, my son,
            whom these blind fingers tore apart
            and these callous eyes attacked,
            we know not what we do, when we pride ourselves we know. (451)

Euripides seemed really interested in mothers killing their children, at least from the extant plays. Of course Medea is the really famous example, but I think ultimately we have more sympathy for Agave, who tears her son apart while possessed by the spirit of Dionysus. It seems like Pentheus dying is at least somewhat justified since he refuses to acknowledge and properly honor the god Dionysus, but Agave is the one whose fate seems really unfortunate. I mean, Bacchus possesses her and she’s out reveling, when the god tricks Pentheus into spying on the rites and then convinces Agave and the other Bacchants that he is a lion, whom they rip into small pieces. Only later does Agave realize what she’s done. And it’s a pretty brutal moment when her father, Cadmus, coaxes her back to her senses and convinces her that it is actually her son and not a lion whose head she carries through Thebes in triumph.

I also feel pretty bad for Cadmus, whose grandson and heir is murdered by his daughter. I mean, Cadmus tried to do the right thing when he and Tiresias dressed in the goat skins and ivy and went out to join the worship of Bacchus. And then for some reason (I think because Cadmus had denied that Semele—Dionysus’ mother—had a child with Zeus) Cadmus is banished at the end of the play and maybe turned into a snake who will wage war on Hellas with foreign armies (Paul Roche, the editor and translator of my edition, noted that this is a confusing and kind of nonsensical bit, and probably was confusing and nonsensical for the Athenian audience as well). In my opinion, Cadmus should get some points for a) worshipping Dionysus, and b) trying to convince Pentheus to worship Bacchus as well. But I suppose his consolation prize is not being brutally ripped to death by his loved ones.

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