Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen":
DIONYSUS AND THE BACCHAE


(Euripides, 'The Bacchae,' 677-775)

According to the ancient authorities, the cult of Dionysus came to Greece from Thrace or from Phrygia (the Phrygians were a Thracian tribe). The cult was of a frenetic and ecstatic character, as this passage from Euripides' Bacchae so strikingly illustrates. One of the herdsmen describes to Pentheus, the king of Thebes, an attack of the maenads (bacchae) upon the royal herd.

About that hour

when the sun lets loose its light to warm the earth

our grazing herds of cows had just begun to climb

the path along the mountain ridge. Suddenly

I saw three companies of dancing women,

one led by Autonoe the second captained

by your mother Agave, while Ino led the third.

There they lay in the deep sleep of exhaustion,

some resting on boughs of fir, others sleeping

where they fell, here and there among the oak leaves

but all modestly and soberly, -not, as you think,

drunk with wine nor wandering, led astray

by the music of the flute, to hunt their Aphrodite

through the woods.

But your mother heard the lowing

of our horned herds, and springing to her feet,

gave a great cry to waken them from sleep.

And they too, rubbing the bloom of the sleep

from their eyes, rose up lightly and straight

a lovely sight to see: all as one,

the old women and the young and the unmarried girls.

First they let the hair fall loose, down over their shoulders,

and those whose straps had slipped

fastened their skins of fawn with writhing snakes

that licked their cheeks. Breasts swollen with milk,

new mothers who had left their babies behind at home

nestled gazelles and young wolves in their arms,

suckling them. Then they crowned their hair with leaves,

ivy and oak and flowering bryony. One woman

struck her thyrsus against a rock and a fountain

of cool water came bubbling up. Another drove

her fennel in the ground, and where it struck the earth,

at the touch of god, a spring of wine poured out.

Those who wanted milk scratched at the soil

with bare fingers and the white milk came welling up.

Pure honey spurted, streaming, from their wands.

If you had been there and seen these wonders for yourself,

you would have gone down on your knees and prayed

to the god you now deny.

We cowherds and shepherds

gathered in small groups, wondering and arguing

among ourselves at these fantastic things,

the awful miracles those women did.

But then a city fellow with the knack of words

rose to his feet and said: 'All you who live

upon the pastures of the mountain, what do you say?

Shall we earn a little favour with King Pentheus

by hunting his mother Agave out of the revels?'

Falling in with his suggestion, we withdrew

and set ourselves in ambush, hidden by the leaves

among the undergrowth. Then at a signal

all the Bacchae whirled their wands for the revels to begin.

With one voice they cried aloud:

'O lacchus! Son of Zeus!' 'O Bromius!'

they cried until the beasts and all the mountain seemed

wild with divinity. And when they ran,

everything ran with them.

It happened, however,

that Agave ran near the ambush where I lay concealed.

Leaping up, I tried to seize her,

but she gave a cry: 'Hounds who run with me,

men are hunting us down! Follow, follow me!

Use your hands for weapons.'

At this we fled

and barely missed being torn to pieces by the women.

Unarmed, they swooped down upon the herds of cattle

grazing there on the green of the meadow. And then

you could have seen a single woman with bare hands

tear a fat calf, still bellowing with fright, in two,

while others clawed the heifers to pieces.

There were ribs and cloven hooves scattered everywhere,

and scraps smeared with blood hung from the fig trees.

And bulls, their raging fury gathered in their horns,

lowered their heads to charge, then fell, stumbling

to the earth, pulled down by hordes of women

and stripped of flesh and skin more quickly, sire,

than you could blink royal eyes. Then,

carried up by their own speed, they flew like birds

across the spreading fields along Asopus' stream

where most of all the ground is good for harvesting.

Like invaders they swooped on Hysiae

and on Erythrae in the foothills of Cithaeron.

Everything in sight they pillaged and destroyed.

They snatched the children from their homes.

And when they piled their plunder on their backs,

it stayed in place, untied. Nothing, neither bronze nor iron,

fell to the dark earth. Flames flickered

in their curls and did not burn them. Then the villagers,

furious at what the women did, took to arms.

And there, sire, was something terrible to see.

For the men's spears were pointed and sharp,

and yet drew no blood, whereas the wands the women

threw inflicted wounds. And then the men ran,

routed by women! Some god, I say, was with them.

The Bacchae then returned where they had started,

by the springs the god had made, and washed their hands

while the snakes licked away the drops of blood

that dabbled their checks.

Whoever this god may be, sire,

welcome him to Thebes. For he is great

in many other ways as well. It was he,

or so they say, who gave to mortal men

the gift of lovely wine by which our suffering

is stopped. And if there is no god of wine,

there is no love, no Aphrodite either,

nor other pleasure left to men.


Translation by William Arrowsmith, in Grene and Lattimore (eds.), The Complete Greek Tragedies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 573-4

More on Ancient Greece:

Books by Mircea Eliade:

Man and the Sacred | Main Menu | Keyword Search