On October 7, Dr. Sarah Nooter and Dr. Christopher Faraone discussed the background and motifs of The Bacchae. Read on for 8 takeaways from our first session of The Bacchae in our Theatre & Thought series, “Euripides’ Bacchae: Sight and Blindness; Self and Other.”
- In 405 BCE, The Bacchae premiered in Athens. It was written near the end of Euripides’ life while he lived in Macedonia.
It came at the end of a long century of Greek tragedy. As such, the work acts as a reflection on the entire tradition up until that point.
2. The play has religious connections.
Plays were performed in venues and events in honor of Dionysus, the patron god of theatre, wine, and nature. Dionysus was worshipped in every Greek city, but was never a primary god in the sense that Athens was devoted to Athena. Dionysus was worshipped both by men and women, distinct in a time when women worshipped female gods and men worshipped male gods.
3. Dionysus experiences human suffering.
Most of his myths are about him being captured, chased away, and feeling fear of death. This suffering made him closer to the human experience. He is a vengeful, powerful god in The Bacchae, but it is important to remember that he has suffered as well.
4. There are voluntary and coerced worshippers of Dionysus in the play.
There are two groups of women who are Bacchants, but have different relationships with Dionysus. The Chorus are voluntary worshippers of Dionysus and follow him everywhere. They do similar things as Theban Bacchans do, like running in nature and dancing, but the Theban women are not voluntary worshippers of Dionysus. They’re being punished in a fervent, twisted form of Bacchic religion after rejecting Dionysus’ godhood.
5. Mystery rites
We don’t know a lot about the mystery rites of Dionysus, but they most likely involved drinking. A mystery rite is about learning and experiencing something in a spiritual, religious ritual to help prepare the individual on how to react when they die and go to the Underworld.
6. Dionysus lusis
He loosens the daily cares and worries that drag the human spirit. During the ritual, the worshippers feel ecstasy and a loosening from their problems, something that can also bring destruction.
7. Scholarly interpretations are divided.
Some read the play and view Dionysus’ actions as justified while others comment that it is perhaps Euripides’ way to critique religion and the cruelty of gods.
8. A political view
Dionysus is half-brother to mortal Pentheus; they are both sons of Thebes. Some view Dionysus as having political motivations to come back and kill Pentheus so he can be human king of Thebes. His viciousness is part of his human nature.
What do you think about these scholarly insights? Form your own interpretations by engaging with our Theatre & Thought series for Euripides’ The Bacchae.