Bacchic Vindication: A Character Analysis of Dionysus in Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite 

Attic Red Figure Painting by the Kleophrades Painter who lived from 510-470 BCE.

Attic Red Figure Painting by the Kleophrades Painter who lived from 510-470 BCE.

This article is two of three in a series on Bacchus/Dionysus, you can read the first one here, and the next one here.

Although Dionysus initially draws out sympathy from the reader, his vindictive nature over rules his actions. All the while his inclination for revenge, however macabre it may be, gestates. When you first meet the god Dionysus, he explains to the audience how the people of Thebes have done injustice against him; he then begins to lay out his revenge. Each line in his opening speech contains a wealth of subliminal information into his malicious tendency to those who were not initiated in his Bacchic mysteries. In his opening dialogue with the audience he states:

“Thebes taints me with bastardy; I am turned into an alien, some foreign outgrowth of her habitual tyranny,” [i]

Dionysus hints at his ill fated birth and the stigma behind it. The city of Thebes does not accept his deified birthright from Zeus, and, portrayed later in his introductory lines, is the Thebans attitude towards his mother Semele; “…bringing vengeance on all who deny my holy origin and call my mother—slut.”[ii] (This line also outlines to whom he will seek his revenge.) His mother was struck by a thunderbolt for looking upon the divine form of Zeus.[iii] But her death was taken by those in the city of Thebes as a sign of her infidelity to her husband as well as outlandishly claiming that Zeus fathered her son.  Zeus, being the god of oaths, punishes those who are unfaithful to their spouses; so it was right to assume the cause of Semele’s punishment. His status as an alien stems from his origins. This alienation angers Dionysus and further marks his status as simply a mortal born out of wedlock rather then being the son of Zeus. The rumor of his birth was misconstrued as him being taken by Zeus, who then sewed Dionysus into his thigh.[iv] This may be eluded to the description of “foreign outgrowth”. Later, the play pokes fun at this aspect with humorous, yet insightful vulgarity. :

TIRESIAS(to KADMOS):

“…Is the man

Not fully present in the seed? And the offspring

Of the son of Ichion, are they not even now ensconced

Within that dangling pouch between your thighs?

Offsprings whose genesis you now endanger

By sharp tongue wagging impiously?

It’s not for me to say if Zeus had his scrotum

Sewn to one side of his thighs or

In—between like – presumably – yours.”[v]

With this scene in mind, the “outgrowth” that Dionysus was from  Zeus’ scrotum. Such a concept is visited in the text once before, “a seed of Zeus was sown in Semele my mother”[vi],  it is obvious that the seed of Zeus dwells between his thighs. The “outgrowth” is simply talking about Dionysus as Zeus’ son, growing out of him becoming a “foreign” body shows his separation from Zeus.

Although the last part of the first sentence is contained as such, I feel that it relates to the prevenient sentence which reads:

“…her habitual tyranny. My followers daily pay forfeit for their faith.”[vii]

“her” in that portion is referring to the city of Thebes, and the tyranny of Thebes institutes edicts often against the followers of Dionysus; and because of that, they pay dearly. But in all cases they seem to have been set free, “In was no Human hands that snapped those chains, no/ Human cunning picked the locks on those/ Iron gates.”[viii];  they’re set free by none other then Dionysus himself.

The following sentence seems to be the most vindictively geared statement for his case of revenge on the city of Thebes:

“Thebes blasphemes against me, makes a scapegoat of a god.”[ix]

Being a god from the seed of Zeus, Dionysus feels he is due what is owed to him. Namely, the pouring out of libations, the wearing fawn skins, waving the thyrsus, and dancing in homage to him.  The fact of the matter is that the city of Thebes disregards his birth as divine from Zeus, so therefore, sees no reason to worship him. Their blaspheme is simply their refusal to worship and acknowledge him. For this reason, he becomes vengeful and takes on this vindictiveness.

In the second half of that sentence, he attributes the people of Thebes into making a scapegoat of him, which is only worsened as an insult because he is a deity. The occurrences of the Theban women heading for the hills to “frisk” each other and indulging in the many inebriated orgies in honor of Dionysus causes King Pentheus to blame Dionysus for their promiscuous activities, rather than the women for their own immorality.[x] Granted, they’re in a trance because of the influence of Dionysus, but the blame still rests on them for they had not willingly accepted Dionysus as a god.

This line is where he starts to portray that he is plotting against the inhabitants of Thebes, and they will not be able to refute his rightful place in the Pantheon. Dionysus says:

“It is time to state my patrimony—even here in Thebes.” [xi]

and within this statement, he portrays his worldliness and authoritative abilities that he will flex within Thebes. His “patrimony” refers directly back to how he is rightly apt to receive the mantle of godhood. He had inherited powers that he now wields vindictively against mortals who dare question his legitimate power. The portion that says “—even here in Thebes” shows that he has already been accepted as a god in other parts of the world, and when he is through, he will be god in the eyes of those dwelling in Thebes, or,  if need be, while they dwell in Hades.

The revenge of Dionysus is most keenly felt on the house of Pentheus, ruler of Thebes. The twisted and disturbing manner that he achieves his regicidal revenge  shows his vindictive, rather than a sympathetic persona. It is hard to be sympathetic to someone who is ruthless and hell-bent at decimating those who would dare scoff at his godly status. To be worthy of sympathy, he would have to be less malevolent and far more pitiful of a character. As it is, he does not require pity, but projects fear into the those who view him.

 


[i] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 1.

[ii]Ibid., 2.

3 “Semele, daughter of Cadmus king of Thebes, being beloved by Zeus, was beguiled by the jealous Hera into asking him to visit her, as he visited Hera herself, in the full glory of his god-head. He accordingly appeared before her in all his majesty as the god of thunder ; Semele, over- powered by his presence, was struck dead by his thunderbolts.” (see John Edwin Sandys The Bacchae of Euripides: With Critical and Explanatory Notes and with Numerous Illustrations From Works of Ancient Art. 3rd ed. (London: C. J. Clay And Sons, 1892), ix.

[iv] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 30.

[v] Ibid.,31.

[vi] Ibid.,2.

[vii] Ibid.,1.

[viii] Ibid.,40.

[ix] Ibid.,1.

[x] Ibid., 23.

[xi] Ibid., 1.

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