Ancient Athenian Drama

Euripides: The Bacchae

5th century BC, Ancient Greek.

again and againEx(change) of identity

And now his mother Agauë holds his head, the head of her own dear son, believing it to be the head of a mountain lion.

I must first of all remind you of the myth of Actaeon, as told by Ovid in the first century BC. Actaeon was hunting once in the forest, the very woods in which the climax of this play has just taken place, the woods above Thebes, north of Athens. Resting from strong exertion, hot and tired, he was attracted to the sound of splashing water in a nearby cave and stumbled upon the goddess Artemis bathing with her nymphs. She shot him an icy stare and sent him fleeing from the cave with a shower of water-droplets. And as though in recognition of some newly-discovered knowledge, his feet began to change as he ran from the place, his toes became hooves and almost at once all four of his limbs were those of a deer. Soon his own hunting dogs were on his scent, unable to distinguish a deer from their own master!

Here I see Agauë, the mother of King Pentheus of Thebes, holding a head that she believes to be that of a mountain lion. She boasts of this trophy and describes how she and the other women on the mountainside, celebrating the rites of Dionysus, like wild animals themselves have torn this creature to pieces with their own bare hands.

Dionysus has caused this. The men of Thebes refused to recognise him as a god. As a punishment, he sent their women-folk mad and drove them onto a mountain hillside to sing, make ivy garlands and, for those who had left young children in the city, to suckle the cubs and fawns of wild creatures at their own breast. Dionysus walked into Thebes and, when captured by King Pentheus and taken to a prison cell to await death by stoning, he briefly took on the form of a bull and brought the palace crashing down in an earthquake.

Then he seemed to hypnotise the King.

King Pentheus suddenly appeared oblivious to an explicit warning from his grandfather Cadmus and the blind seer Teiresias, reminding him of the fate of the King’s cousin Actaeon. King Pentheus expressed an urgent desire to view the women on the mountainside – he let Dionysus dress him as a woman, let Dionysus lead him out of the city; a man led to the slaughter by a bull! King Pentheus let Dionysus lower a huge pine tree for him to have a vantage point from, at the very top of which he could view the wild antics of the ecstatic Bacchants.

The women discovered him, shook the tree and tore him to pieces where he fell. And now his mother Agauë holds his head, the head of her own dear son, believing it to be the head of a mountain lion.

Story fragment retold from: Vellacott, Philip, 1973. Euripedes: The Bacchae and other plays (Penguin Classics). Translated from Ancient Greek with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. The Bacchae, pp 191–244.

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Euripides – Wikipedia

Dionysus – Wikipedia

Maenad (Bacchantes) – Wikipedia

Euripides: The Bacchantes – English translation, Internet Classics Archive (download plain text version)