Seeking truth in opposites, Myth of Dionysus in Euripedes’ Bacchae

Bacchae1.jpg

God, not god? Structuralists come at mythology with the intent to weed out opposing binaries, rooted in biology, that stand out as clear thematic red flags within a read. Claude Levi Strauss thought this kind of view was important in accessing mythology because the human brain works that way. In binaries. The human brain processes information as pairs of opposites used to structure our basic understanding of the world.

Dionysus: God, not god? Man, or beast? Man, or woman? It is the detail in these opposing relationships that matter in the myth, according to structuralists. What is the distinction in what makes a man in Euripedes’ Bacchae, and not man? What are the defining features of being a God? Is it about being drunk? Not drunk? Is it about perception? As in visual appearances, or how other people perceive the truth?

So, if structuralists pick at the biologically-rooted binary opposites that permeate the Bacchae, what would they find? What makes the myth tick?

What drives this story is fundamentally the dissolution of identity as Dionysus returns years later to punish people for not according him the worship/rituals of a deserving god. Dionysus AKA Bacchus. In the pantheon of Greek gods, we learn that Dionysus is seen to be some kind of misfit.

The God of Wine insists that his worshippers are drunk and therefore outside of themselves, when they worship him.  His rituals happen at night, in the hillsides, with a hunt staged. We learn that Dionysian rituals are the complete opposite of standard Greek rituals, which happen in daylight, crowded/public spaces in the center of the city, inside a main temple, involving controlled animal sacrifice.

Pentheus is the King of Thebes who bans the worship of Dionysus and forbids women from joining in his rites. The ensuing wrath of Dionysus sees a scheme hatched where Pentheus, disguised as a woman, climbs a tree to spy on what he thinks are the sexual activities of women engaged in Bacchic rites. Instead, the women (including his own mother) are in a trance. They mistake him for a lion, hunt him down, tear him from limb to limb and decapitate him.

640px-pompeii_-_casa_dei_vettii_-_pentheus

Red flag 1: Man or beast? So we see Pentheus’ identity dissolved.  Is he man, or beast? Is he King of the land, or a lion, king of all animals? But what about the women who kill him? Are these Dionysian revellers logical (wo)men or posessed beasts? Categorizing “civilized” humans as repressed and rational and controlled, whereas “savage” beasts have unfettered appetites and actions in a Dionysian ritual — involving alcohol and orgies… And what about Dionysus? Does he exact controlled justice or does he unleash monstrous wrath? Is it necessary to punish everyone in Thebes with such violence save Tiresias? Do Agave and Cadmus really deserve their ends?

DionysusRidesLeopard.jpg

Is Dionysus a Greek God? He certainly has the name of one. But the circumstances around his birth are suspect, right. His mortal mother Semele was impregnated by Zeus. Through some trickery by Hera, Semele insists Zeus shows himself to her and when he does, Semele is immolated by his glory. Zeus snatches the baby Dionysus who is reborn from his father’s own thigh.

Red flag 2: Mother — not my mother?  Dionysus’ stature as God is in question. Is Semele really his mother? Or is Zeus his mother for giving birth to him from his own thigh? There’s been scholarly debate about whether Dionysus went too far in punishing Agave after she’d already suffered by mistaking her son Pentheus for a lion and ripping him to pieces/beheading him. If you see the whole story as a son avenging others for insults on his mother, you can understand why he targeted her. Perhaps more than he targeted Pentheus.

dionysus-statue

Red flag 3: Myself — not myself. Dionysus disguises himself as a stranger. Pentheus disguises himself as a woman. Are the Dionysian worshippers really themselves when they are drunk? Being drunk, we step outside ourselves and excuse ourselves from normal behavior. You have unwilling worshippers on this hillside driven mad by Dionysus. And those who willingly followed him from Asia to Thebes. Going into a trance, the maenads have magical powers imbued by Dionysus. Out of the trance, the maenads realize their undoing.

Red flag 4: Predator, or prey? And now we’ve come full circle to the most obvious of binary oppositions in this play. Pentheus stalks women from up a tree – he certainly starts as predator. But is he, really? A victim of a god’s scheme, the women he spies on mistakes him for a lion. Isn’t a lion a predator? But wait. If a lion’s a predator, what’s it doing in a tree? It gets ripped apart and becomes a sacrificial animal in a Dionysian rite.

Ritual & Religion: Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Goddess of Fertility

Eleusinian hydria Antikensammlung Berlin 1984.46 n2.jpgHomeric Hymns are among the oldest monuments of Greek literature. The lengthy  Homeric Hymn to Demeter provides the most important and complete information about Demeter, goddess of Fertility. It covers the abduction of Persephone, Demeter’s grief and anger, her arrival at Eleusis, nursing Demophoön at the home of Celeus and Metaneira, Zeus’ order to Hades, the return of Persephone for parts of the year to her mother’s realm. The story seems to functionally explain the restoration of fertility to the planet according to the seasons  and how Demeter Establishes Her Eleusinian Mysteries.

 

Painfully aware that Myth and Ritual go hand-in-hand in Ancient Greece *this isn’t intended to be cavalier*… Giving credit to Structuralist or Functionalist interpretations… Ultimately, I gravitate to my Freudian psychoanalytical toolbox to best interpret this myth.

 

 

The cartoon my mind throws up of Hades making Persephone eat a (surreal, Dali-an) pomegranate, and thus robbing Demeter of her offspring (and fertility) for a part of the year… reminds me too much of everything we read just in Hesiod’s Theogony of Kronos and Zeus overwhelming their parents with acts of violence to exert their reproductive supremacy and propagate the universe.

 

 

Persephone prances in the meadow and grabs a flower, Hades abducts her in a chariot and effectively makes her queen of the dead (‘killing’ her). Uranus lies with Gaia and Kronos castrates him, silencing him forever. The fact that Zeus allowed Hades to abduct Persephone (it mentions in the Hymn to Demeter that it as part of the deal he made in divy-ing up the realms of the universe) — makes it Pile, High, and Deeper full of Freudian repressed subconscious/taboo desires. ‘Uh, you drew the short end of the stick, Hades, and got the Underworld for all eternity. To placate you, here, you can have my niece Persephone and reign over souls of the dead with her by your side.’

 

And then we have Demeter disguised as an old lady going about her miserable state and wandering through human cities. “Freud thinks that hidden messages inside a myth are always going to be about just you and me as individuals, developing, working our way through a developing, the developing of our psychological state.” Demeter plays foster mother to Demophon and takes care of him as though he’s immortal. She makes him impervious by dipping him in Lethe, feeds him ambrosia, food of the Gods, and seems to displace all the nurturing she could have done for her own daughter Persephone, who ‘died’ as an immortal, by making Demophon, a mortal, into an immortal.

 

Yeah, I’m using my psycho-analysis toolbox here because my mind totally sees a scene of Demeter lying on Freud’s couch there. ‘Don’t you think when you punish the world by robbing it of its harvests, you are in fact projecting your own trauma of Hades robbing you of your only offspring?’ Hmmmmm.

Structuralism and Homer’s Odyssey

How useful is structuralism for analyzing myths?

Structuralism is a very interesting, if too accounting t-ledger type POV, personally, for looking at The Odyssey. It’s useful in that it gives us a really quick and dirty way to find major themes or rules of the game within the narrative. It also establishes the rules of the game, perhaps even a hierarchy – white, food, good; black, not food, bad. Something is higher vs lower on the food chain, something is better than another thing. It definitely gets us curious about oppositions, and perhaps gets us asking even more relevant questions as to why those oppositions are emphasized so much, and why they are even the focus at all. To me, anything with structure also helps me remember key pieces of the story. Did cannibalism happen here? Yes. Were they eaten, or did they eat something? No….

 

What are its limitations?

Sure.. biological needs are important when you’re stuck on a storm-tossed ship and washing up on strange lands with limited resources to live on. But, taking the structuralist point of view all the time means we think that when Odysseus and crew are pushed to breaking point at end of leash on life, on this massive home-ward journey, all they think about is food or not food? Surely not. What about other themes that may matter? What about broken promises to family, their spiritual lives if they die, etc?

How useful is it for thinking specifically about the Odyssey?

In terms of the Odyssey, here are all the limitations I’ve found to only using structuralism: For one, it ignores the True Hero’s Journey (and our understanding of the hero). For two, really, plot, character, settings, all go out the window when you only care about binaries in biologically driven themes. Well, then what’s the point of appreciating this epic poem? For three, where’s the fire plus algebra equals art? The Passion? The creativity, in reading The Odyseey through a kaleidoscope of other possible interpretations? Structuralism seems too inflexible about putting something in one box or the opposite, and not allowing for grey areas or possible reversals of things.

Can there not be, for instance, an anti-food, or a food-multiplier? Also, structuralism doesn’t explain the rules very well to me here. At least not vis food-not food. So a god says it is, and it is food? But most of all, structuralism assumes that was is biologically binary is of paramount importance over say, historical context or spiritual ones. Ignoring context is a pretty dangerous way to look at the world, from experience. I’d much rather know context about why Homer had so much emphasis on food – not food in this particular story rather than care whether cattle is forbidden!