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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.