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.

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.

Gods and Humans: Reading Hesiod’s Theogony with Freudian lens

In taking Peter Struck’s Mythology class at UPenn (via Coursera), I learned that Sigmund Freud made many contributions not just to psycho-analysis, but also to literature. He tells us that myth s dramatize events in every individual’s mental or psychological development.

 

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 the developing of our psychological state. In his book, The Interpretation of Dreams (~c 1900), Freud explains the psyche: a repression barrier that blocks the expression of our unconscious desires from our conscious desires.

 

Freud says that myths are the dreams of an entire culture. So what we get when we take a look at myths is we get this kind of displaced and condensed expression of primal desires in a culture that are displaced onto now more acceptable targets for those desires.

Sigmund Freud would have had an absolute field day with Theogony.

I mean, I don’t think you could call Hesiod’s Zeus in any way repressed. Here’s a King-god dead set on taking the throne to the cosmos and not being challenged. Why would a culture want to tell itself a story like this? Overthrows the father-figure, carries out his mother’s crazy wishes, makes siblings (Cyclops and Hecantosheires) his soldiers and weapon makers, overthrows all his aunts and uncles and chains them for all eternity in a pit, divides the universe between him and his brothers but gives the short end of the stick to the other two, mates with all of his aunts and sisters!

Perhaps because a culture wants to go back to the drawing board and completely consolidate order and power in one single entity and produce an empire unchallenged. Or, perhaps a culture wants to tell itself, look, we’re going to be this great empire, because look at the Gods we worship – Zeus was a powerful god who ruled supreme and because we worship him, we’re going to inherit the Mediterranean.

We don’t care if it’s forbidden or how we get there (through cruel means/ gross misconducts), creating an empire is going to be ugly and we’re going to get there. Maybe that’s the repressed cultural dream or goal coming out in a historical context. Maybe it’s all peacocking.

The Prometheus myth, read with a Freudian lens, transposes this expression of angst against the unjust politicians/parents on Greek Gods as mythological deities.

(Going back to Freud’s statement that myth is an expression of dreams of a culture (in this case dreams of justice) or “myths dramatize events in every individual’s psychological development”, so “I’m trying to, as a citizen of the polis, try and figure out why my political leaders are doing such and such”. I prefer to think of parents, though, simply because of the genealogical theme in Hesiod… like ‘why didn’t dad give me fire today’, or ‘why did dad give me all the good meat to eat and save only thigh bones for himself’. And maybe, with a Freudian lens, it’s then possible to see it as, human beings are these younger, less important, stepchildren of Gods on Mount Olympus, and the overbearing parents/father figure in Zeus makes these judgment calls about fire and sacrifice, and more important siblings (such as Prometheus) totally influenced how things developed before we got a chance to grow up and get a say in it, so… that’s life! It’s not fair, you know, but my brother ruined stuff for me and my dad — this is his way of just being a controlling parent — and since Prometheus is busy getting his liver pecked out, let’s just lay low and try to go with it.

Zeus’ battle with the Titans is really interesting from Freudian ‘repressed subconscious / desire to mate with forbidden parents’ point-of-view.

Because, unless I read it wrong, it looks as if Zeus gets rid / puts in chains in Tartarus all the male Titans from the alpha generation. But puts all the females in Mount Olympus and marries/mates with all of them, creating a new generation of gods. He wants to usurp in this case, Kronos’ role not just as ruler of the universe, but also as chief mate of all the first generation goddesses and himself swallows Methis for wisdom. It’s an expression of reproductive supremacy and hereditary legacy. Maybe he swallows Methis to prove he’s better than Kronos, ‘I’m smarter than you, dumbass, let me swallow her before you do…’. I mean, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I don’t think you can say that in Zeus’ case. He really got busy!

Scholars’ Disputes over The Odyssey’s Ending – Books 23 & 24

Some notable Alexandrian scholars believed that the second half of book 23 and all of book 24 represent a spurious addition to a poem that originally ended at 23.297.

Hmm… lots of passionate/scholarly opinions on this issue by people far more expert, so I’ll venture one opinion without (hopefully) getting bitten.

Though most modern scholars no longer ascribe to the view above, I think that it merits discussion in our readings of Homer’s Odyssey. I believe Homer intended it that way (as in he deliberately composed 23 and 24, afterthought or not…) and I think he had good reasons to.

The last book and a half of the Odyssey change the poem: it adds a nice fable quality/morality tale finish to it.

I think Homer had a great marketing advisor who said, OK, you’ve wrapped this long epic poem, let’s have some inter-textual reference if possible to your other long epic poem so readers will remember your canon and to go read that too. As in cross-referencing the Trojan War, the Iliad.

What would be lost—or gained—by its removal?

I like that 24 ties up some loose ends, with what happens in the father-son reunion not just with Telemachus but also with Laertes. And that the Gods (Zeus no less) surmise what the outcomes will be.

The book kind of started in heaven with Athena conversing with Zeus so there is a nice symmetry in Hermes leading souls to the Underworld, you know, full tour of the cosmos.

24 is probably better in terms of beats than 23 unless Homer was musically into break-beats.

We’re not left hanging wondering what repercussions are on Ithaca folks after all the violent scenes in preceding pages.

I like that here the suitors are telling Odysseus’ stories to Agamemnon in the Underworld, there is a king of ephemeral/divine quality to Homer’s tale, not just that the muse or the gods talked about it, but the undead as well.

All eternity in all the cosmos. I’m guessing Homer really wanted a legacy to be passed on.