Let me tell you, I’ve read a few stories about Dionysus in my time. And I’ve noticed that this important Greek god has inspired ancient writers in a myriad of ways, from poetry to plays. Dionysus appears, for example, in a comic guise in The Frogs of Aristophanes, which contrasts with the more dramatic depiction of Dionysus at sea in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus.
In my opinion, however, one of the most evocative descriptions of Dionysus comes from The Bacchae by Euripides. In case you’ve forgotten the details of this play, here’s a quick summary. Dionysus returns to Thebes to proclaim his divinity. However Pentheus, the impetuous young ruler of Thebes, is having none of it. He denies the divinity of this stranger, and as you can imagine, this clash between human and divine wills is the cause of the central conflict in The Bacchae.
Euripides does a masterful job of depicting Dionysus as a deity who is utterly determined to establish himself, and his rites, at his birthplace of Thebes. The Bacchae opens with the following passage, spoken by the Greek god :
I am Dionysus, the son of Zeus,
come back to Thebes, this land where I was born.
My mother was Cadmus’ daughter, Semele by name,
midwived by fire, delivered by the lightning’s blast.
And here I stand, a god incognito,
disguised as man, beside the stream of Dirce
and the waters of Ismenus.
Euripides, The Bacchae, lines 1-6, trans. by William Arrowsmith
Dionysus talks of his travels in the lines that follow. He speaks of his journeys through places such as Lydia, Phrygia, Persia, Bactria, Arabia, then Asia, and finally a triumphant return to Greece. He reveals that he taught the inhabitants of these varied lands his rites and mysteries. In Thebes, however, members of the royal house stubbornly refuse to acknowledge him as the son of a god.
As a consequence, Dionysus makes the women of Thebes mad, turns them into his personal retinue of Bacchae (who incidentally are also referred to as Bacchantes or Maenads). These frenzied women haunt the hills surrounding Thebes and perform ecstatic rites in honor of their deity Dionysus.
Naturally, this behavior is not well received by the current ruler of Thebes, Pentheus. The king rushes back to survey the state of affairs :
I am also told a foreigner has come to Thebes
from Lydia, one of those charlatan magicians,
with long yellow curls smelling of perfume,
with flushed cheeks and the spells of Aphrodite
in his eyes. His days and nights he spends
with women and girls, dangling before them the joys
of initiation in his mysteries.
Euripides, The Bacchae, lines 233-39
Pentheus speaks these words before he has met the mysterious stranger - indeed, these are among the first lines he shares with the audience. His enthusiasm for hunting down and capturing the man accused of causing such scandalous behavior in the women of Thebes is evident, as is his interest in the stranger himself.
In one particularly vivid scene, we see Dionysus through the eyes of Pentheus. In this encounter, Dionysus is in disguise as one of his own priests. Here is how Pentheus addresses Dionysus when the two finally meet face to face :
you are attractive, stranger, at least to women -
which explains, I think, your presence here in Thebes.
Your curls are long. You do not wrestle, I take it.
And what fair skin you have - you must take care of it -
no daylight complexion; no, it comes from the night
when you haunt Aphrodite with your beauty.
Euripides, The Bacchae, lines 452-58
Dionysus is portrayed here as an attractive, alluring, and altogether seductive figure. Notice how Pentheus deliberately points out the luxurious curls, the decidedly unmanly pale skin, and then concludes his description by suggesting the sex appeal of Dionysus in the comment about haunting Aphrodite with his beauty? It’s all calculated to cast Dionysus as an effeminate outsider, someone who lures the women of Thebes away with his good looks and irresistible foreign charms.
Pentheus seems to be simultaneously repulsed and intrigued by this mysterious stranger. Yet, over time, he succumbs to the spell of Dionysus…or is that Aphrodite? Pentheus desperately wants to witness what he imagines are wanton acts among the Bacchae.
It is also worth noting that according to mythology, Dionysus and Pentheus are in fact related. They are cousins by blood. Dionysus was the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Semele. The first quote from The Bacchae reveals that Semele was one of the daughters of Cadmus. It turns out that Pentheus is also one of the grandsons of Cadmus. His mother, Agave, is another daughter of the famous Theban hero.
Both Dionysus and Pentheus are portrayed as young, beardless men in the play. However, while Pentheus represents the traditional model of a Greek youth, Dionysus is decidedly different from his cousin. Clad in a fawn skin and holding a thyrsus (essentially a staff composed of fennel topped by leaves of ivy), the garb that Dionysus wears marks him as a foreigner.
I found this depiction of Dionysus in The Bacchae to be one of the most memorable representations of the Greek god in all the works of ancient literature I’ve read. The notion of the handsome stranger, with intriguing foreign ways and the ability to charm or punish, based on his desires, holds a powerful appeal for me. Dionysus is after all more than a bit dangerous in this play by Euripides. I invite you to read The Bacchae as well, and see what you think.