Dionysos the Weird: Reading Bacchae through the lens of Lovecraftian horror

Written by: Justin Biggi.

Euripides’ Bacchae features some of the stranger imagery the playwright employed throughout his works. Focusing on Dionysos’ return to his homeland of Thebes, the play sees Dionysos’ cousin, Pentheus, meet a grisly end at the hands of, amongst others, his own mother, driven mad with other women by Dionysos himself. Pentheus’ grisly death becomes a reminder for the audience of what happens when one attempts to go against a god’s will – especially given the fact that this is blatant punishment for Pentheus’ actions of outlawing the cult of Dionysos. 

Much can be said about how this play approaches subjects such as ritual madness, hubris and gender roles (Pentheus is disguised as a woman by Dionysos, as he tries to secretly spy on his mother and her companions). Dionysos has long been interpreted as a god who blurs boundaries. He is first and foremost a god of wine, and therefore of drunkenness: this implies a lack of control ancient society (as well as our modern one) may not have been all that comfortable with facing on a day-to-day basis.  He is a god of excess, characterized by an entourage of priestesses, the Bakkhai or Maenads, and, in iconography, also accompanied by male, sexually-charged satyrs. He is also a god of magic and of rituals that were not open to the public or at least, not open to the predominant male citizen class: similarly to Orpheus, it has been argued that his cults attracted mostly women and slaves. 

The text of the Bacchae is not spared such perceived strangeness or liminality. While there are a number of single, isolated instances where something strange or unnatural happens (such as Dionysos tearing down the walls of the Theban palace, or Pentheus thinking the god has the head of a bull), there are two cases where we have a longer, in-depth description of strange, even terrifying, acts. In two instances of so-called “messenger speeches,” where characters come on-stage to relate events that have happened elsewhere but are nonetheless central to the plot, the audience is privy to two acts of intense violence which are meant to not only cause discomfort in the audience, but also, through the nature of the acts themselves, push the boundaries of what is or isn’t natural. In the first messenger speech, we find a graphic description of the Theban women, driven to Bacchic frenzy by Dionysos, tear apart a herd of cows with their bare hands. In the second messenger speech, the messenger describes Pentheus’ journey to spy on the Bacchae and his discovery which leads, on Dionysos’ urging, to his death by dismemberment, in particular at the hands of his mother.  

Much of what happens in these two episodes can be described as “uncanny.” The term is generally applied to Lovecraftian fiction or “weird” horror, and implies the intentional subversion of the “laws of nature” in favor of unsettling, often scary imagery. Bennett and Royle define the uncanny as follows: “the thoughts and feelings that may arise on those occasions when the homely becomes the unhomely, when the familiar becomes uncomfortably strange” (40.) This definition echoes the one put forward by H. P. Lovecraft: “[t]he weird tale has … [a] certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces …. a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature” (28.)

As explained above, Dionysos is a god often happy with pushing boundaries. It is no different in the Bacchae. In the first messenger speech, a cattle hearder, after narrowly escaping the Bacchae’s frenzy, rushes to Thebes to tell Pentheus what he has seen: the women, through the power of the god, were able to have milk, honey and wine spring from the ground (lines 869 – 877.) While this is certainly strange, it does not appear uncomfortable to the narrator, the herdsman and, in fact, he urges the disbelieving Pentheus to accept Dionysos as a god, which he is adamantly refusing to do throughout the play. Things become unsettling, uncomfortable, when the men try to grab Agave, Pentheus’ mother, to bring her back to court. Following this, the women turn to violence. 

The herdsman proceeds to give a vivid description of the women tearing cattle apart with their hands. Euripides does not spare the audience the gory details: “You should have seen one ripping a fat, young, lowing calf apart— others tearing cows in pieces with their hands” (909 – 910) while, once the carnage has been completed, “[y]ou could have seen ribs and cloven hooves tossed everywhere—some hung up in branches dripping blood and gore” (911 – 913.)

Through the graphic depiction of violence, the strangeness of the episode becomes uncomfortable. As I’ve discussed in my piece on Seneca’s use of violence, the violent act is uncomfortable precisely because it is dehumanising. A living, animated creature, human or animal, becomes simple meat: this is made even worse when the body is literally torn apart. In Ancient Greek, ritual dismemberment had a name: sparagmos. The sparagmos in the first messenger speech foreshadows a second, more terrifying one in the second messenger speech.

Towards the end of the play, Dionysos manages to successfully lure Pentheus up the mountain, under the pretense that there he will be able to witness the Bacchae’s ritual directly. It is, of course, a trap, and Pentheus is soon attacked by the women he was hoping to spy on. Urged by the god, the women tear Pentheus apart, and his mother, Agave, rips his head form his shoulders believing him to be a mountain lion. Similarly to the episode described above, the violence is preceded by a strange, but not necessarily unsettling, episode: Dionysos “[makes a] tree bend down,              forcing the mountain pine to earth by hand, something no mortal man could ever do” (1330 – 1332.) It is to help Pentheus gain better access to the women. After this, Dionysos disappears, and only his voice can be heard, urging the women to violence. Once more, Euripides does not shy away from the gorier details: “[s]he seized his left arm, below the elbow, pushed her foot against the poor man’s ribs, then tore his shoulder out … ripping off chunks of Pentheus’s flesh” (1391 – 1406.)

In both instances, the direct actions of a god, by definition inhuman, are the catalyst for the dreadful events to take place. In the first messenger speech, the women are “in Bacchic ecstasy” (897) and, the second time, it is Dionysus himself who urges them to violence (1345 – 1349.) As Lovecraft defined it, the weird is dreadful due to “outer, unknown forces” manifesting in a way which is percieved by the protagonist as menacing (28.) Throughout the play, one of the underlying threads is whether or not Dionysos is recognised by the other characters as being a god. Those who recognise his divine nature, like Tiresias, the herdsman or the second messenger, one of Pentheus’ attendants, are spared his wrath. Characters like Pentheus, however, or his mother, Agave (who is turned to Bacchic frenzy as a way to punish her for rejecting Dionysos’ mother, her sister) are forced to participate in dreadful, terrifying events as a way for them to fully recognise Dionysos’ divine nature. 

Certainly it is anachronistic to argue that the Bacchae is a piece of Lovecraftian horror literature, but by reading the play through the lens of the genre, we are able to add a further layer of complexity to the text: by reading the play as cosmic horror, we are able to see patterns, specifically in the two messenger speeches, which would have been lost otherwise. Thanks to this, the interpretation of Dionysus, both the character and the god, is made more complete. As Lovecraftian horror dabbles in the unspeakable and the terrible, so does Dionysus’ character in the play: by reading them as such, we can see the ways in which similar tropes have been used throughout the centuries, echoing each other and playing off of each other. 

Bibliography

Euripides, Bacchae, translated by Ian Johnson, (Vancouver: Vancouver Island University Press, 2003). 

Jameson, M., “The Asexuality of Dionysus” in The Masks of Dionysus, eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Pharaone, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993).

Lovecraft, H. P., Supernatural Horror in Literature and Other Essays, (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1973).

Otto, W. F., Dionysus:, myth and cult, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965).

Royle, N. and Bennett, A., An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, (New York: Routledge, 2016).

Image: https://www.ancient-literature.com/greece_euripides_bacchae.html

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