The Cult of Bacchus and Pliny’s Christian Conundrum

This is my last post in a series on the cult of Bacchus, the first can be found here: A Critical Review of the Bacchae of Euripides by Wole Soyinka and the second one here: Bacchic Vindication.

MET Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos, Late Imperial, Gallienic, ca. AD 260-270, accession number 55.11.5

Figure 1. MET Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysos, Late Imperial, Gallienic, ca. AD 260-270, accession number 55.11.5

Introduction:

Titus Livy’s narrative of the Bacchanalian Conspiracy in 186 BCE primarily showed a religious persecution that set a precedent. This watershed moment would impact how Romans would view and prosecute Christians in later centuries. Those persecutions were founded on four criteria set forth by Livy and reiterated nearly three centuries from the event in a correspondence between the Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger.[1] The account of the Bacchanalian Conspiracy is only to be found in Livy’s narrative which describes only those who are most closely associated with the event. These individuals are the consul Postumius, the prostitute Hispala, her lover Aebutius, his mother Duronia, and his stepfather Sempronius.  The motivation for the Bacchanalian persecution is argued extensively by scholars but can be simplified for the purpose of this discussion between two schools of thought. Namely, the balancing of the pax deorum and the shocking uncovering of vile acts of stuprum.[2] The first school suggests that because the Bacchanalia was practicing covert rituals at night, the equestrian class feared the unbalancing of the pax deorum. While the other believes that the testimony of Hispala, which described the violent homosexual penetration of the male citizens unwilling to participate in the Bacchanalia, was cause for the swift and ruthless action by the senate.[3] This was considered a moral outrage since the 180’s were marked by “a preoccupation with anxiety about public morality.”[4]

Although the sources dealing with this intriguing event are minimal, their quality is exceptional. There are five primary sources that will be analyzed. Each of these sources are further removed from the initial event; yet, showing its far reaching effects over time in which it ultimately portrays the affects on Christianity. The first source is a surviving bronze copy of the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus, a decree by the Roman senate which was created at the time of the incident.[5] The second, a narrative composed by Livy, is the earliest surviving work describing the event. His account was written sometime during the end of the first century BCE, nearly a hundred years later. According to Walsh, Livy most likely used a variety of sources that do not survive, one of these being from an early annalist who was a relative of the consul Postumius.[6] The third are frescos in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. Since it was annihilated in a violent eruption, the wall paintings offer us a rare glimpse into the daily life of a provincial city which generally reflected the ideology of a culture as a whole.[7] Next is the second century correspondence between Pliny the Younger, a Roman provincial governor, and the Emperor Trajan concerning the procedures for the prosecution of Christians within his jurisdiction. The final source is a statue commissioned by Hadrian in 130 CE of his lover Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris. An adequate analysis of the surviving sources is needed to understand why Christians were so heavily persecuted.

Part 1: TheSenatus Consultum

The Bacchanalia was a landmark event that had dire consequences for adherents of Christianity who would be eventually persecuted. Christianity carried similarities that mirrored the cult of Bacchus. So the Romans believed them to be equally dangerous, not only to the pax deorum, but to Rome’s societal structure as well. During the time that Christianity had first appeared, it was systematically persecuted and ostracized by the Romans for reasons similar to the Bacchae. In order to understand the harsh resistance towards Christians, one must first be aware of the precedent which was created under the context of the Bacchanalian Affair. Furthermore, the cause for Roman opposition to Christianity can be found in Livy’s portrayal of the depravity in the Bacchanalia which carried an important description:

“At night both men and woman, their minds having been set aflame with wine, of greater tender youths, had destroyed all distinction of shame, all kinds of corruption began to happen, since at the time they were prone to obtaining their natural pleasure. There was not only one kind of crime; but here was a great deal of arbitrary rape of females, also false witnesses, forged signing of wills and evidence, all were issued from the same place: from the same place also came poisoning and internal assassinations, so that not even bodies existed for burial…The violence was covered because of the howling and crash of drums and cymbals so no citizens cries were to be heard during their violent rape and slaughter.” [Translation mine.].[8]

This startling evidence is later rephrased as the testimony given by Hispala who reluctantly spoke to the senators. After they were sufficiently disturbed by what they had heard from the witness, the senators quickly sought to repress the illicit and perverse cult. Even before Hispala spoke to the senators, the consul Postumius first had to uncover the organization which operated throughout the Italian peninsula and within Rome herself.

In 1640 the Senatus Consultum was found on a bronze tablet in Tiriolo, Italy and is a facsimile of a letter which contained the senatorial decree. This document was the piece of legislature that set the precedent that would later impact the persecution of early Christians. Since we will frequently reference the Senatus Consultum in the discussion that follows, it is worth reproducing it here:

The consuls Quintus Marcius, son of Lucius, and Spurius Postumius, son of Lucius, consulted the Senate on October 7 in the Temple of Bellona.

Marcus Claudius, son of Marcus, Lucius Valerius, son of Publius, and Quintus Minucius, son of Gaius, assisted in drafting the decree.

Regarding the Bacchanalia the senators proposed to issue a decree as follows to those who are allied with us:

“No one of them shall have a place devoted to the worship of Bacchus: and if there are any who say that they have a need for such a place, they shall appear in Rome before the urban praetor; and when the pleas of these men have been heard, our Senate shall make a decision regarding these matters, provided that not less than 100 senators are present when the matter is discussed. No Roman citizen or man of Latin rights or anyone of the allies shall associate with the Bacchae, unless they have appeared before the urban praetor and he has given permission, in accordance with the opinion of the Senate, delivered while not less than 100 senators were present when the matter was discussed.”

The proposal passed.

“No man shall be priest of, nor shall any man or woman be master of, such an organization; nor shall anyone of them have a common fund; nor shall anyone appoint any man or woman to be master of such an organization or to act as master; nor hereafter shall anyone take common oath with them, shall make common vows, shall make stipulations with them, nor shall anyone give them surety or shall take surety from them. No one shall perform their rites in secret; nor shall anyone perform their rites in public, in private, or outside the city, unless he has appeared before the urban praetor and he has given permission, in accordance with the opinion of the Senate, delivered while not less than 100 senators were present when the matter was discussed.”

The proposal passed.

“No one in a company of more than five persons altogether, men and women, shall perform such rites; nor in that company shall more than two men or three women be present, unless it is in accordance with the opinion of the urban praetor and the Senate, as has been written above.”

You shall publish these decrees in public assembly for not less than three market days, that you may know the opinion of the Senate. For the opinion of the senators is as follows: “If there are any persons who act contrary to what has been written above, it is our opinion that a proceeding for a capital offense must be made against them”; and you shall inscribe this on a bronze tablet, for thus the Senate voted was proper; and you shall order it to be posted where it can be read most easily; and, as has been written above, you shall provide within ten days after these tablets have been delivered to you that those places devoted to the worship of Bacchus shall be dismantled, if there are any such, except in case something sacred is concerned in the matter.

To be dispatched to the Ager Teuranus.”[9]

Several instances with in this document illustrate the restrictions and punishments that are used for those following Bacchus and are reused against those practicing Christianity nearly two centuries later. When looking at paragraph six of the Senatus Consultum in the context of Christianity it is quite clear how many Romans believed that it was a threat to the pax deorum. In order to prevent opposition to the emperor the senate decreed that “No man shall be priest of, nor shall any man or woman be master of, such an organization;”. This also directly applies to Christianity as well. Both religions had similar internal structure that made Romans suspicious of them. The next line important restriction applies directly to the Bacchae, whereas “nor shall anyone appoint any man or woman to be master of such an organization or to act as master;” the distinction of woman was a direct attack on the Bacchae whereas the distinction of man was later used to persecute Christians.

Part 2: The Narrative of Livy

In reference to the document under analysis, Livy’s account reflects and agrees with the inscription “although no evidence of the language gives an indication that he saw it.”[10] His account agrees with the number allowed to meet, a common fund, and neither a master of sacrifices nor a priest was to be allowed.[11] It is believed that these demands are meant to discourage large orgiastic gatherings that the senators feared, yet would allow for the continued individual worship of Bacchus. This continued worship was important because they still believed in the pax deorum and would not chance angering Bacchus.

Although concerning the narrative of Livy,  P. G. Walsh is “sceptical of the wicked stepfather…of the mother’s vow…the role of Aebutius’ aunt…and above all sceptical about the content of Hispala’s revelations,”[12] it is clear that Livy’s account does in fact carry some weight. The tale begins with the introduction of a fatherless Aebutius, who was under the protection of his mother and stepfather. The mother told him of a vow she had made to the gods, that when he became well, she would initiate him into the cult of Bacchus. She continued, telling him that for ten days he must practice continence, where on the tenth day, she would conduct him to the shrine where he would be inducted into the cult.[13] Upon hearing the vow taken by his mother, he agreed to be inducted. This induction into the cult which was infamous for its corruption was key in the plan of his stepfather to steal his inheritance. While in a conversation with his lover[14] Hispala, about not being able to have intercourse with her for ten days, she became cognizant of Aebutius’ plans of induction. She “exclaimed in great distress” at this, telling him:

“They would lead him to a place, which resounded on every side with the howling and harmony of singing and cymbals and the beating of drums, your voice calling for help will not be able to be heard clearly, while they inflict violence by means of forced penetration.” [Translation mine.].[15]

As this revelation was quite disturbing to Aebutius, when he returned home he announced that he would not be initiated into the Bacchanalia. His mother and stepfather, furious at his insolence, chased him from the home “his mother on one side, his stepfather with four slaves on the other.”[16] Aebutius sought refuge with his aunt Aebutia, who was later summoned by Sulpicia the mother-in-law of her nephew in the coincidental presence of the consul Postumius. When Aebutia told the consul what she had heard; believing he had the information he sought, he sent her away asking for Hispala. [17]

Hispala arrived visibly shaken being summoned to such important company, and when she saw the consul, she nearly fainted from fright. When she came to her senses, Hispala supplicated to him for her safety; only then did she speak to Postumius about what she had previously spoken to her lover. After she had finished she again begged for safe exile. Postumius, when he was able to call together the senators, had Hispala speak what she knew to them, causing the senators to become disturbed and fearful.[18] After the testimony of Hispala, Postumius gives a rousing rhetorical speech to the gathered members of the senate in which he convinces them unanimously to persecute those who seek to undermine the Roman state.[19]

The account of Livy is quite unbelievable at times. One can not comprehend that those in Rome were as oblivious to the Bacchanalian movement within their city. Walsh raises that point quite humorously:

We are asked to believe that the consuls and the senate had no inkling of the Bacchic ritual until this dramatic revelation by Hispala. So in the puritanical Roman society of the early second century, a demonic cult had been flourishing for several years undetected. Drums had been beating, trumpets blaring…individuals disappearing, and massive crowds, amongst them prominent noblemen, were participating. Yet the eyes of the consul and senate were opened only when Hispala broke her vow of silence.[20]

Although the existence of dramatics which regularly occur in his account, the basics seem to be mirrored in the Senatus Consultum. This at least bolsters its initial credibility, perhaps why it is involve in many scholarly debates.

Part 3: The Proliferation of the Cult of Bacchus and Christian Conundrum

After the preliminary persecution took place in 186, the cult of Bacchus remained as the evidence shows in the Villa of Mysteries. This villa was “decorated sometime during the first century BCE,

Depiction of Bacchus, presumably the goddess Venus laying on him.

Figure 2. Depiction of Bacchus, presumably the goddess Venus laying on him.

and the majestic Dionysiac frieze (Figure 1.) was commissioned at the same time.”[21]  Naturally, as Bacchus is the god of wine, this villa was in the business of manufacturing and selling that product. The room that this villa is named for has near life sized frescos of a woman who is undergoing marital initiation rights. This colorful and high quality artistry exemplifies the endurance of this cult which had experienced brutal persecution that no other religion had previously underwent. This resilience is reproduced in the followers of Christianity in the centuries to come.

In 79 CE Pliny the Elder, because of his exceedingly curious nature, perished along side the town of Pompeii during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. His nephew Pliny the Younger inherited his uncle’s property and wealth. This new found wealth allowed young Pliny to become the important figure he is. His numerous epistles between the emperor Trajan shed light not only on the workings of governmental procedure, but views towards Christians of the Roman Empire during 110 CE. If you briefly look back at Livy, he describes the Bacchanalia as coniuratio[22] rather than a superstitio.[23] He makes this distinction with the four following criteria:

  1. New, strong links within the group instead of the ancient ones which connected the members to their traditional social structure.
  2. An oath of initiation to respect the own laws of the new community.
  3. Animosity against the State.
  4. The large numbers of followers.[24]

Pliny believed that Christians had three of the four and for this reason they had remained a superstitio praua[25]. However, not all Romans were able to distinguish them from each other and as a result, they believed it was a real threat to their traditional society’s existence—and deserved to be punished accordingly.[26] These similarities are what produced the hostility that the Christianity encountered for the first three centuries of its existence, and the conundrum that Pliny faced as governor. Christians most certainly severed their old ancestral ties by becoming an believer of Christ. To become initiated into this new religion, you had to undergo rituals such as communion and baptism and then respect a new set of moral and social codes. Because of the construct of its faith, many people joined which satisfied the third criteria for becoming a coniuratio. Similarly, those who followed Bacchus severed their ties with their father’s religion, they also partook in the feasting of wine and bread. They made sure to respect a new set of moral codes, and there were many followers. The fourth one which consisted of animosity to the state was said by Pliny to be found in the Bacchae but not in Christianity.

Pliny writes to the emperor asking him what he should do with Christians aside from killing those who did not sacrifice to the emperor. He remarked that he “he found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”[27] Which clearly shows how little Romans thought about Christianity. So too did Romans speak about the cult of Bacchus as degenerate and perverse. Trajan responded that what he was doing was “the right course of procedure…in your examination of the case of persons charged with being Christians.”[28] His straightforward and official standpoint was completely against Christianity, while during this time, the cult of Bacchus flourished unabated.

The cult of Bacchus still remained prevalent during the time when Christianity was struggling under Roman persecution. The statue of Antinous (Figure 3) is a colossal marble statue of the emperor Hadrian’s lover. The emperor chose none other then the god of wine for the deification of Antinous. This interesting choice illustrated the general acceptance of the Bacchic cult. As Roman attitudes towards the Bacchae shifted, so too would they regard Christianity in a different light. The intervening years from the persecution of 186 BCE and the creation of this statue, an elapsed time of 316 years, the bacchanalia thrived and eventually was accepted. Christianity too reflects this resilience in the face of annihilation.

 

Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris 130 AD Vatican Museum, Pio-Clemintine Museum, Round room Inv. No. 256.

Figure 3. Antinous as Dionysos-Osiris 130 AD Vatican Museum, Pio-Clemintine Museum, Round room Inv. No. 256.

[29]If you are to acknowledge the death of Jesus Christ dated at 33 CE, as the flashpoint, and the acceptance process beginning with the death of the first Christian emperor, Constantine I  in 336 CE; at this proposed chronological framing, it can be theorized that within a close approximation of  years Christianity too became accepted as a religion.

In conclusion, the sordid cult of Bacchus, although heavily persecuted, managed to survive and flourish in later centuries. It’s religious persecution that set a precedent was establish with the advent of the Senatus Consultum. One can trace the influence of the Bacchanalia throughout Rome’s history after 186 BCE as illustrated by figures 1 through 3. These artistic achievements attest to the proliferation of the cult. Likewise, Christianity was similar by being persecuted and their rituals. However, though the Bacchae thrived, it was unlike Christianity since ultimately it became the state religion of the later Roman Empire. When discussing Christianity, if one is not well versed in the past persecution of the Bacchae, then you are unaware of Rome’s reasoning for its persecution.


[1] Pliny the Younger was legatus Augusti of the province of Bithynia et Pontus, and as such, he wrote extensively to the Emperor seeking governmental advice sometime during 110 CE ff.

[2] Stuprum is the Latin word that Livy used to describe the raping of the male citizenry as it signifies the illicit penetration associated with homosexual intercourse.

[3] Victoria Emma Pagàn, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History (Austin: University of

Texas Press, 2004). 58.

[4] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 200.

[5] Allan Johnson, Paul Coleman-Norton and Frank Card Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), 27

[6] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 193.

[7] Umberto Pappalardo, The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting (J. Paul Getty Trust: Los Angeles, 2009), 7.

[8] Titus Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 39.8.6-8. Cum vinum animos incendisset, et nox et mixti feminis mares, aetatis tenerae maioribus, discrimen omne pudoris exstinxissent, corruptelae primum omnis generis fieri coeptae, cum ad id quisque, quo natura pronioris libidinis esset, paratam voluptatem haberet. Nec unum genus noxae, stupra promiscua ingenuorum feminarumque erant, sed falsi testes, falsa signa testamentaque et indicia ex eadem officina exibant : venena indidem intestinaeque caedes, ita ut ne corpora quidem interdum ad sepulturam exstarent… Occulebat vim quod prae ululatibus tympanorumque et cymbalorum strepitu nulla vox quiritantium inter stupra et caedes exaudiri poterat.

[9] Allan Johnson, Paul Coleman-Norton and Frank Card Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), 27.

[10] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 272.

[11] Ibid., 273-274.

[12] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 199.

[13] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 243.

[14] Hispala Faecenia was a prostitute of high repute, who was manumitted but continued in the profession as such. She become quite entangled with Aebutius, even denoting him as the heir of her fortune.

Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 247.

[15] Titus Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 39.10.7 Eos deducere in locum, qui circumsonet ululatibus cantuque symphoniae et cymbalorum et tympanorum pulsu, ne vox quiritantis, cum per vim stuprum inferatur, exaudiri posit.

[16] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 249.

[17] Ibid., 249.

[18] Titus Livius, Livy with an English Translation in Fourteen Volumes. Vol. 11, Books

XXXVIII—XXXIX. Trans. by Evan T. Sage. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 255, 257.

[19] Ibid., 259-267.

[20] P. G. Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis: Livy on the Bacchanalia,” Greece & Rome 2 (October 1998): 198-9.

[21] Umberto Pappalardo, The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting (J. Paul Getty Trust: Los Angeles, 2009), 46.

[22] coniuratio, coniurationis—conspiracy, plot, intrigue; band of conspirators, taking an oath.

[23] superstitio, superstitionis—superstition, irrational religious awe.

[24] Àgnes A. Nagy, “Superstitio et Coniuratio,” International Review for the History of

 Religions 49, no. 2 (2002): 178. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270481 (accessed May 10, 2010)

[25] prauus, praua, prauum—perverse, corrupt.

[26] Àgnes A. Nagy, “Superstitio et Coniuratio.” International Review for the History of Religions 49, no.2 (2002): 178. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270481 (accessed May 10, 2010)

[27] Gaius Plinius, The Letters of Younger Pliny, Translated by Betty Radice. (London:

Penguin Group, 1969), 295.

[28] Ibid., 295.

[29] Sergey Sosnovskiy, Guide to  the Vatican Museums and City. Pontifical Monuments, Museums and Galleries (Vatican: Vatican Press, 1986), 48.


 

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.

A Critical Review of The Bacchae of Euripides by Wole Soyinka

37

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

In Wole Soyinka’s retelling of The Bacchae,[i] a classical Greek play, the tone has been  slightly altered to include a comedic aspect; which neither excludes the initial somber tendency nor does the plot deviate far from Euripides 5th c. script.  There are several instances in which comedy is inserted in the play that momentarily changes its tone. The majority of these instances is in the dialogue between the characters Kadmos and Tiresias. The comedic points, although vulgar, play an important role in creating a secondary tone in Soyinka’s version of The Bacchae. The first and second are both conversations between the Kadmos and Tiresias. The first is a misspoken line by Kadmos to the other, where as the second is a conversation between them about the origins of Dionysus. The third is an inebriated Pentheus speaking to Dionysus in disguise who incites him to see the maenads. In the retelling of the play, Soyinka has had to abandon the ending of the original and create a new ending because of the nature of the source in which substantial parts are lost.

In both texts, Tiresias is blind, but what is different is how they approach joining the worship of Dionysus. Kadmos does so in secret in Soyinka’s text, by hiding his fawn skin robes underneath his cloak, and devising a thyrsus that is collapsible,

KADMOS: …“See how it works? First collapsible thyrsus in all of Attica, in the whole  world maybe. Made it myself. Couldn’t trust the place joiner not to talk. Shows you how nervous I was, going all that length to disguise the obvious.”[ii]

The two intended to secretly travel to Mt. Kithairon, but before that, Tiresias asks if Kadmos is dressed to go and do Dionysus honor. At this point, Kadmos takes off his cloak to reveal his fawn skin in which the following lines ensue,

KADMOS: Aren’t I? (Takes TIRESIAS’ hand.) Here, feel that.  You won’t find finer foreskin except on Dionysus himself.”

TIRESIAS: He isn’t circumcised?

KADMOS: Who? Who isn’t circumcised?

TIRESIAS: Dionysus. What you said about his foreskin.

KADMOS: Did I? Slip of the tongue.

TIRESIAS: (considers it quite seriously). I wonder how many of that you’d need to make a Bacchic smock.

KADMOS: If that was what Dionysus demanded . . . a couple of thousand slaves forcibly circumcised . . . Pentheus could arrange it.[iii]

These lines change the over all tone completely from the beginning of the play which had been serious and vindictive. The reason for the secrecy were doubts that Kadmos had at joining Dionysus  as he worried  “it did not befit [my] age or rank.”[iv] The accidental “slip of the tongue” that Kadmos had turns from comedic back to seriousness as Tiresias actually considers the idea being discussed.

In the original, this scene is kept serious, and both characters are aware of each other’s devotion to Dionysus. Tiresias sought after Cadmus[v]  in a very upfront manner by saying,

TIRESIAS: …“Go someone, tell him that Tiresias is seeking him. He knows himself why I have come. He knows the arrangement I have made…to dress the thyrsus and put on skins of fawns and wreathe our heads with shoots of ivy.”[vi]

Among the two plays, this is one of the differences in plot. For the most part, Soyinka kept whole sections of dialogue from the original version and tended to only make minor changes such as spelling of character names and who said certain lines.

The next appearance of comedic insertion in the text comes again in a conversation between Kadmos and Tiresias. In the conversation, they talk about  the rumor of Dionysus’ birth  which was misconstrued as him being taken by Zeus, who then sewed Dionysus into his thigh.[vii] Tiresias 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.”[viii]

These lines appear in a more serious form with in the original text but are not spoken by Tiresias, but rather Pentheus to the two old men. He tells them the misconception of this story is due in part to an error of communication by mortals who came up with the concept that he was sown into the thigh.[ix] Pentheus does not go in any such detail as Tiresias does, whose comments were rather racy.

The final comedic addition that changes the tone can be found in the interaction between Dionysus and Pentheus as he dressed him in the costume of a maenad. As Dionysus put Pentheus into a trance like state, he became in a state akin to being on acid[x]; hallucinating Dionysus as a talking animal.

PENTHEUS: (with just a touch of tipsiness)

Yes, but listen. I seem to see two suns

Blazing in the heavens. And now two Thebes

Two cities, each with seven gates. And you—

Are you a bull? There are horns newly

Sprouted from your head. Have you always been

A bull? Were you. . .(He searches foggily in his brain.)

. . . yes, that bull, in there?

Was it you?

DIONYSUS: Now you see me as you ought to see. Dionysus

Has been good to you with his gift of wine.[xi]

This off balanced and humorous Pentheus is quite different from the serious overbearing one earlier in the play, both in Soyinka’s and Euripides’ version.  In the original, Pentheus only thinks Dionysus may be a bull, whereas in Soyinka’s version Dionysus actually becomes a bull with out any doubt in the mind of Pentheus as understood in the dialogue.

The ending of the two plays is the biggest difference,  yet is attributed to the fact that parts of the ending of Euripides’ Bacchae are lost. In Soyinka’s Bacchae, Agave successfully nails her son’s head to the archway in the palace, while in the original text, she merely carries it around until it becomes an object of recognition that causes a change of emotion in her. Soyinka follows through with Agave thinking the head as a trophy by tacking it to the wall, whereas the original Agave recognizes it as her son and does not proceed that far. The spot where he abandons the original ending is at the point of a blood like substance streaming forth from the mouth of Pentheus. It continues to spew outwards like a fountain and it turns out not as blood, but as Dionysian wine that characters, in a trance, drink.

Soyinka’s inventive writing and incorporation of a comedic tone in the retelling of this play, has given it new vigor while retaining its roots befitting a classic tragedy. With each of the artfully inserted comic lines, the play gained a new perspective. The characters of Tiresias and Kadmos became comic relief in Soyinka’s version which gave this play a breath of fresh air into the serious and direct original piece.


[i] Can be known as either The Bacchants or The Bacchantes.

[ii] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 25.

[iii] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 22

[iv] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 23

[v] Name given to the character of Kadmos in the original text.

[vi] Euripides and Moses Hadas. Ten Plays by Euripides. 3rd ed. (New York: Bantam Classics, 2006) 321.

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

[viii] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 31.

[ix] Euripides and Moses Hadas. Ten Plays by Euripides. 3rd ed. (New York: Bantam Classics, 2006) 324.

[x] Lysergic acid diethylamide commonly abbreviated as LSD.

[xi] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A communion Rite  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 76.