Sunday, 20 March 2011



Bacchae ('women' of Bacchus', i.e. followers of Bacchus or Dionysus) is one of the last plays Euripides wrote. Found after his death in 406 B.C., it was produced probably in the following year. Towards the end of his life, Euripides (said to have become disenchanted with his relative lack of success) left Athens for the court of Macedon. This last masterpiece was probably written there: Euripides may have been inspired by the primitive vigour of Dionysiac religion in the northern mountains, in contrast to its comparatively tame form in Athens. At any rate, he returned in this play to what perhaps formed the subject of the very earliest Greek tragedies: the story of Dionysus himself, the god of theatre, of wine, and of all forms of ekstasis - standing outside the everyday personality.

The text for the following two extracts from this play, together with the introductory pieces and the epilogue, is taken from "The Greek Anthology", JACT, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Pentheus and Dionysus.

Lines 481-508.

The play dramatises the original arrival of Dionysiac worship in Greece. Dionysus has come to Thebes to establish his rites. He has created havoc, driving the women of the city in a frenzy to Mount Cithaeron, to worship him there with dance and song. The young king, Pentheus, has rejected the new form of religion and has arrested the god, who is disguised as a young priest of his own cult. In this first passage Pentheus interrogates his captive.

Pentheus:  And did you come here first bringing the god?

Dionysus:  Each of the barbarians dances these secret rites.

Pe:  (Yes,) for they think much worse than the Greeks.

Di:  In this respect at least (they think) much better; but their laws (are) different.

Pe:  Do you perform these rites by night or by day?

Di:  The majority at night; darkness contains solemnity.

Pe:  This is treacherous towards women and corrupt.

Di:  And even in the day someone could discover something shameful.

Pe:  You must (lit. it is necessary for you to) pay the penalty for your evil devices.

Di:  And you for your ignorance and for being impious towards the god.

Pe:  How bold the Bacchant (is) and not untrained in speaking!

Di:  Tell (me) what I must (lit. it is necessary for me to) suffer. What harm will you do me?

Pe:  First, I shall cut your delicate hair.

Di:  My hair is sacred; and I am growing it for the god.

Pe:  Next, hand over this thyrsus (i.e. Bacchic wand) from your hands.

Di:  Take (it) from me yourself; I am carrying it for Dionysus..

Pe:  We shall guard your body inside prison.

Di:  The god himself will release me, whenever I wish.

Pe:  (Yes,) I suppose you call him standing among the Bacchants.

Di:  Even now, being nearby, he sees what I suffer.

Pe: And where is he? For (he is) not visible to my eyes.

Di:  Beside me, but you, yourself being impious do not see (him).

(Pentheus turns to his soldiers.)

Pe:  Seize (him); he despises me and Thebes.

Di:  I, being sensible, tell you, not being sensible, not to bind me.

Pe:  And I, being more powerful than you, indeed (tell them) to bind (you).

Di:  You do not know what life you live (lit. you are living), nor what you are doing, nor who you are.

Pe:  I am Pentheus, son of Agave, and of my father Echion.

Di:  You are well-suited to being unlucky in respect of your name. (N.B. Dionysus points out the similarity of Pentheus' name to 'penthos', meaning 'sorrow'.)

Lines 800-848.

Dionysus is imprisoned, but escapes amid the miraculous collapse of the royal house. A herdsman describes the remarkable powers of the women on Mount Cithaeron. In the following passage the escaped prisoner is interrogated again by Pentheus, but the king quickly loses his aggression, falls under the spell of the god, and is persuaded to go to the mountain disguised as a female follower of Dionysus, to spy on the rituals.

Pe:  We have been entangled with this unmanageable stranger, who, neither suffering nor doing, will be silent.

Di:   My good friend, it is still possible to arrange these things well.

Pe:  By doing what? By being a slave to my slaves?

Di:  I shall bring these women here without (the use of) weapons.

Pe:  Alas! You are now contriving this (as) a trick against me.

Di:  What sort (of trick), if I wish to save you by my contrivances?

Pe:  You have contrived this in common with (the women), so that you may revel all the time.

Di:  Yes indeed, I devised this with the god, certainly (lit. know it).

(Pentheus speaks first to his soldiers, and then to the disguised Dionysus.)

Pe:  Bring my armour to me here, and you stop talking!

Di:  Ah! would you like to see them sitting together in the mountains?

Pe:  Very much! I would give a countless weight of gold for that.

(From now on Dionysus gradually establishes a complete ascendancy over Pentheus.)

Di:  Why have you fallen into a great desire for this?

Pe:  I should see them being thoroughly drunk with distress.

Di:  Nevertheless, would you see gladly what is bitter to you?

Pe:  Know clearly (that I would), sitting in silence under the pine-trees.

Di:  But they will track you down, even if you go in secret.

Pe:  But (I shall go) openly; for you have spoken well about this.

Di:  So, am I to take you, and will you attempt the journey?

Pe:  Lead (me) as quickly as possible, and I grudge you the time.

Di:  Then put linen robes around your body.

Pe:  What on earth (is) this? From (being) a man, shall I be enrolled among women?

Di:  (Yes,) lest they kill you, if you are seen there (as) a man.

Pe:  You have spoken about this well again. How wise a person you always are!

Di:  Dionysus has taught me these things fully.

Pe:  So what can the things which you advise me (about so) well happen?

Di:  Going inside (the house), I shall put clothes on you.

Pe:  What clothing? Surely not female (clothing)? For shame holds me (back).

Di:  Are you no longer an eager spectator of the Maenads (i.e. the Bacchants)?

Pe:  And what clothing do you bid (me) to throw around my body?

Di:  I shall spread out hair at length on your head.

Pe:  And what is the second form of this adornment of mine?

Di:  A robe reaching to your feet; and there will be a headband on your head.

Pe:  And surely you will add something else to this for me.

Di:  A thyrsus in your hand, and a dappled fawn skin (around you).

Pe:  I should not be able to put on female clothing.

Di:  But, joining battle with the Bacchants, you will cause bloodshed.

Pe:  (You speak) correctly; I must (lit. it is necessary [for me] to) go first to spy.

Di:  At any rate (it is) wiser than to hunt trouble with trouble.

Pe:  And how shall I go through the city eluding the Thebans?

Di:  We shall go on deserted roads, and I shall lead (you).

Pe:  Anything (is) better than that the Bacchants laugh at me.

Di:  We two shall go into the house.

Pe:  I shall consider whatever things seem best.

Di:  That is possible; in every way, my contribution (is) ready at hand.

Pe:  I shall go in; for I shall either proceed bearing arms or I shall obey these counsels of yours.

(Pentheus goes into the house, and Dionysus turns to the Chorus.)

Di:  Women, this man is entering into our net, and he will come to the Bacchants, where he will pay the penalty (by) dying.


The ominous prophecy of Dionysus is fulfilled. Pentheus is discovered by the frenzied women and killed. His mother, Agave, bears his severed head triumphantly to Thebes, and only when she has recovered from her madness finds that she has killed her son.

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