There is an important tension between the world of the gods and the world of the mortals in The Bacchae. It’s important to remember that when this play was first performed in ancient Greece, audiences would have been much more familiar with the mythical backstories involved, and, of course, many would have believed in them. The characters in the play, also believers, have to make a critical choice—either follow the god Dionysus or risk offending him. Dionysus has come to Thebes prove his godliness and to reinforce the idea that mortals ought to bow down to him. Pentheus, on the other hand, wants to exert his power as king and undermine Dionysus. Everyone else has to choose between these two viewpoints, with all but the king deciding it’s best to worship Dionysus; Cadmus even thinks it would be a point of pride for the family if Dionysus’ godliness is confirmed (Dionysus is Cadmus’ grandson). The play, then, argues two fundamental points: firstly, that the very nature of belief involves giving yourself up to something you don’t fully understand; and that, secondly, the gods ought to be worshipped not because they set a particularly useful moral example but because their powers are so immensely superior to anything in the mortal realm.
From the beginning, Euripides sets up Pentheus and Dionysus to represent the opposite spheres of gods and mortals. Both of them have just arrived in Thebes; Pentheus has been away and has returned to find his citizens enthralled by the cult of Dionysus, undermining his power. Dionysus’ thirst for revenge is largely based on the fact that Pentheus’ mother, Agave, and her sisters, Ino and Autonoe, don’t believe the story that Dionysus is the offspring of Semele (his mortal mother) and the supremely powerful god Zeus. Pentheus doesn’t believe the story either, dismissing Dionysus as a “fraudulent” “magician”—“whoever he is.” In ancient Greek mythology, the gods were often infuriated by mortals’ non-belief. This sets the play up as a contest for power, with Pentheus seeking to exert his administrative control over Thebes against Dionysus’ desire to see the Thebans indulge in his rites and rituals, and, in doing so, prove his status as a god. Of course, Dionysus ultimately proves his point and destroys Pentheus and his family in the process. As a shape-shifting god, Dionysus could have used much less cruel means to prove his godliness, but opts not to. Dionysus seeks to actively punish those who doubt him, showing him to have a heartless side that, when judged on human terms, is hard to understand.
Dionysus is on a mission to convert people to believe in him and show faithfulness to his festivities of drunken abandon. Dionysus has just arrived from Asia, having successfully established his “rites and mysteries” and “set all Asia dancing.” Now, he wants the place of his birth, Thebes, to fall in line too. He believes that he is a god that ought to be followed, but this is also something of a contradiction—he is the only god that was born to a mortal mother, making him part human. This makes him a fundamentally ambiguous figure, and is one of many dualities in the play that sets it up as resistant to taking away one clear simple message. Perhaps, then, his cruelty is a product of his human fallibility—not being completely divine, he is prone to the most damaging of human emotions. Possibly, too, Euripides is reinforcing the idea that humans can’t expect to understand what exists beyond their limits of comprehension.
Another explanation for Dionysus’ particularly cruel way of enacting revenge comes from his associations as a god—not only is he the god of wine and ecstatic ritual, but he is also considered the god of theater. As such, perhaps another important motivation for him is the creation of drama itself. In fact, given that he could just kill Pentheus himself, rather than elaborately orchestrate a scenario in which Agave does the deed, it’s fair to say that he wants the death to happen in a particularly dramatic—and tragic—way.
The relationship between the mortals and the gods, then, is highly complicated—but most of the citizens of Thebes see it as their duty to uphold the beliefs and customs imposed on them by the immortals. Euripides argues that, rightly or wrongly, failure to bend to the will of the gods in this instance results in annihilation. However, he also shows that, in the ancient Greek world at least, gods are complex figures that don’t offer any easy moral guidance.
Gods and Mortals ThemeTracker
Gods and Mortals Quotes in The Bacchae
So I must teach this Pentheus, teach all of Thebes,
what kind of god I am.
Once I am established here
I will move on to other lands and show myself there.
But if Thebes tries to drive my Bacchae
from the mountains by force of arms,
I will marshal my Maenads and bring on war.
I have readied myself for battle:
put my deity aside and taken human form.
Blessèd are those who know the mysteries of the god.
Blessèd are those who consecrate their lives to worship.
Blessèd are those who give themselves up to the dance,
to the mysteries, to purification on the holy mountain
where the dance and the mysteries take place.
Are we the only men who'll dance for Dionysus?
The rest are blind. Only we can see.
Women have deserted their homes for these
fraudulent rites up in the woods and mountains,
dancing to celebrate some new god
Dionysus, whoever he is.
Drink is at the bottom of it all.
Huge bowls stand in their midst, I'm told,
brimming with wine, and one by one the women
slip into the shadows to satisfy the lusts of men.
They say they are priestesses, sworn to Bacchus,
but it's clearly Aphrodite they adore.
I've had some of them trapped, and shackled in the prison.
The rest are still out there on the mountain –
Even my mother is among them,
she who bore me to Echion,
with her sisters Ino and Autonoe, mother of Actaeon.
I'll hunt them down with nets.
I'll put an end to their filthy orgies.
They say some foreigner has arrived from Lydia:
one of those charlatan magicians
with blond hair that reeks of scent,
the flush of wine in his cheeks
and all the tricks of Aphrodite in his eyes.
Day and night he's with the women,
showing them his mysteries –
holding up his secret, for them to adore.
Once I catch him there'll be none of that tossing of locks
and waving of wands:
I'11take that head from off his body!
And here's another miracle! The prophet Tiresias
all got up in fawn skin, and my mother's father
dressed up as a Bacchant with a wand.
You look ridiculous, both of you: have you lost your wits?
I'm ashamed of you, Grandfather.
Shake off that ivy and drop that bloody stick!
This is your doing, Tiresias, I can tell:
another imported god, another chance
to make money on the side from burnt offerings
and reading auguries from the guts of birds.
The new god you ridicule will be a great Power in Greece.
Let me explain, young man, the two blessings of human life.
Firstly Demeter, Mother Earth – call her what you will –
sustains us mortals with the gift of grain, of solid food.
But he who came next – son of Semele – matched
her gift to man: he brought us wine.
And wine brought peace to the troubled mind,
gave an end to grief and gave us sleep – blessed sleep –
a forgetting of our sadnesses.
He, a god himself is poured out in honor of the gods.
Through that holy wine we win their favor.
As for the women, it is not for the god to enforce chastity.
Dionysus releases their true nature. Even plunged in delirium,
a virtuous soul does not turn vile.
So. Not entirely unattractive—at least to women, I suppose,
which is why you’re here in Thebes.
Such long hair.
Not a wrestler then, I take it?
So long, it frames your cheeks.
Look: the stone lintels gape from their columns!
The Roaring One is pulling down the palace from inside!
Spark the lightning bolt!
Let the flames feed on the house of Pentheus!
This is maddening.
That stranger, that man I had in chains, has escaped!
What! How is it that you’re free, standing at the gates of my palace?
Bar every gate of the city!
What good will that do? What is a wall to a god?
One woman struck her thyrsus on a rock
and a spring of water shot out, bubbling.
Another drove her fennel wand into the ground
and the god released a jet of wine.
Those who wanted milk
simply tapped the earth
with their fingers and a fountain started.
Pure honey spurted and streamed
from the tips of their wands.
If you had been there, sire,
you would have gone down on your knees and prayed
to the very god you deny.
They snatched children
from their homes, and pillaged houses.
Everything they threw on their backs stayed there:
nothing, not even bronze or iron, fell to the earth.
Flames danced in their hair but did not burn them.
The furious villagers took up their weapons in defense
and, sire, what happened next was dreadful to see.
The men's spears of pointed metal drew no blood,
while the flung wands of the women ripped open flesh,
and the men turned and ran.
While he is sane he will never wear a woman's dress.
But he will shortly, as he is nearly mad.
After all those threats,
I want him walking down these streets in a frock;
I want him a laughing-stock.
Now I shall dress him for Hades,
where he will go by his mother's hand.
And he shall finally know Dionysus, son of Zeus,
a god both terrible and gentle to the world of man.
I see two suns in the sky;
two cities of Thebes, each with seven gates.
And you, my guide, you seem to be a bull.
Horns grow from your head.
Were you a beast all along? For you are a bull now.
The god is with us.
There were difficulties, but now we have a truce.
You see now what you should have seen before. The god.
So how do l look?
A little like Aunt Ino, or a bit more like my mother?
The very image of your mother, now I can see you plain.
But let me fix this curl that's come astray.
It must have been all that Bacchic ecstasy there in the palace.
I was shaking my head so much!
His own mother,
like a priestess with her sacrifice, fell on him first.
But he snatched off his headdress and wig
so she could see who he was.
He reached out his hand to touch her cheek
and cried out: "Mother! Mother! Look!
It's me, Pentheus, Your own son!
The son you bore to Echion!
Spare me, Mother, I beg You!
I have done wrong, Perhaps,
but you cannot kill your own son!"
But Agave's eyes were rolling,
and her mouth filling with foam.
In the grip of the god and the god's frenzy,
it was as if she couldn't see him, couldn't hear.
Grabbing his left hand at the wrist,
she planted her foot against his flank and wrenched,
pulling his arm straight out of his shoulder—
not with her own strength but the strength of the god.
Cithaeron? But why was Pentheus there?
He went to mock the gods, and your rituals.
But we—why were we there?
You were out of your wits.
The whole city was possessed by Bacchus.
I see. Dionysus has destroyed us all.
The gods take many shapes,
accomplish many things beyond our expectations.
What we look for does not happen;
what we least expect is fashioned by the gods.
And that is what has happened here today.