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Roughly halfway through Euripides’ The Bacchae, a messenger describes to Thebes’ bewildered king his encounter with the women who have left the city to practice their religious rites in the forest. His account cogently presents the basic opposition between nature and civilization that is inherent in the work by formalizing the interconnections between these crazed women, the god Dionysus, and nature. Though Agave later becomes Dionysus’ victim, this scene takes place in a separate context where she parallels his role in relation to Thebes. Foreshadowing the city’s eventual fate at the hands of the angry god, it encapsulates the play as a whole.
Within this passage the women shift dramatically in character from languorous, peaceful creatures in harmony with their environment to frenzied bringers of destruction. Their metamorphosis mirrors the dual nature of Dionysus himself, the god who is “most terrible, and yet most gentle, to mankind (861).” Before they detect the threatening presence of men, the women drowse in the wilderness, adorn themselves with “writhing snakes” and leaves, and suckle untamed beasts. They seem to know the secrets of nature, enjoying its benevolence by only tapping their wands or scratching the soil. When they begin their religious rites, the forest takes part; “all the mountain seem[s] wild with divinity (726-7).” Their behavior changes radically when the women find the spying shepherds. They immediately become warriors on the offensive, causing the men to flee in terror, capitulating as fully as Pentheus did in the face of Dionysus’ overwhelming power. Dismembering cattle (domesticated, not wild, animals), burning and pillaging houses, and battling villagers, the women are brought to the extremes of violence as they punish all that conflicts, even symbolically, with their new religion. The wands that spouted honey moments before now inflict bloody wounds on the defenders of the village. Nature itself is the ultimate model for these sudden and comprehensive shifts in character. Like Demeter, who brings harvest or famine according to her whim, Dionysus’ initiates swing from nurturers to killers.
Whether the women are behaving peacefully or violently, there is a quality of unrestraint associated with them throughout this scene. In the forest, water, wine, and honey burst unexpectedly from the earth, giving the reader a visceral feeling of liquid abundance. Milk swells in both the ground and their breasts, thus indicating that both the forest and the women are caught up in the same wild force of nature. This setting cannot be controlled by mere men; when the shepherds attempt to capture the dancing women, the hunted swiftly turns to hunter as they swoop down meadows (735-6) and fly like birds (748) to their prey, whom they overwhelm with numbers, swiftness, and force. Spears and flames cannot hurt them; just as Dionysus throws off his chains and goes on to destroy the city, the women scarcely pay any heed to attempts to restrain them as they rampage the villages. They move as an unthinking, collective will, not a clear-headed democracy. In contrast to the orderly adherence to laws found in the city, their chaotic behavior follows no rules and their power has no bounds.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this passage is the reversal of power between the sexes that Dionysus’ religion engenders. In normal circumstances, women stayed at home, barred from organized meetings of any sort, but here in the forest we see them apart from the city and the men that created such rules. In this strictly female community, men are scorned as ignorant outsiders. When a conflict between the sexes arises, the women immediately take the upper hand, asserting their dominance despite the traditional passive role of the Greek woman. In their frenzy, they become violent and destructive, as if they were men at war. Like an army they descend upon villages, plunder, and battle with the men who dare to fight. In this unexpected behavior the women follow the example of their leader; though he was born male, Dionysus clearly identifies himself with femininity and nature through his soft skin and long curls, his thyrsus and wreath of ivy. He rejects his immortal father, ruler of the skies, in favor of his human mother, who has already returned to the soil from which she sprang. Conversely, the men who face the angered horde of women fall into a submissive role. They are emasculated as they are defeated; their spears draw no blood (762) and their houses rest defenseless. All of Pentheus’ attempts at restraining Dionysus function in much the same way as these ineffective spears, for though his will itself is strong, his narrowly focused mind is easily conquered and molded into humiliating effeminacy. In both cases, society and its laws, represented by men, are completely subverted and overpowered.
Much of the intensity of The Bacchae springs from this irresolvable conflict between nature and man, a tension that can produce the most stirring tragedy. In this case, both sides share the guilt for the ensuing violence; though the women are responsible for the actual destruction, it is a city-dweller who initially triggers the clash by suggesting the ambush. Clearly, Euripides felt that nature always triumphs in the end; the villagers’ spears, fashioned by mere men’s hands, cannot harm the god’s followers. Similarly, the Thebes that he depicts is past its prime, full of decrepit old men and ruled by a blustering adolescent. Pentheus clings to his power and standards of decency, but these concepts are stiff artifacts that disintegrate when confronted by Dionysus’ organic power. The Theban women, converts to a mystical religion that taps into the full power of nature, show the consequences of Bacchic violence unleashed on the unsuspecting.
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