“Euripides’ gods are the gods of Hesiod given a new, cunning, and manipulative makeover. Furthermore, they are depicted as clear threats to the human social order.“
“Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on. This peace between Athena’s people and their guests must never end. All-seeing Zeus and Fate embrace, down they come to urge our union on—Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on!” That is how Aeschylus ended his Oresteia trilogy. The furies, which had so hounded and haunted Orestes, had transformed into co-laborers with Athena singing and dancing for the joy of reason and civilization. Euripides, the great cynic and blasphemer, took a darker and starker approach to the gods and Greek civilization—perhaps one of the reasons why he was less successful than his predecessors in being awarded at festivals and competitions for his writing.
The Bacchae is a classic cornerstone of Western literature. It is the one play of Euripides’ that is part of the undisputed classical canon, though Medea, Iphigenia in Aulis, and the Trojan Women are also masterpieces and should be read to get a fuller portrait of Euripides.
The Failure of Reason and the Fall of Athena
Euripides wrote in an anxious and transformative age. The Persians had just been defeated and Athens, Athena, had ascended as the premier power among the Greeks. Euripides was but a young man when Athens ascended to her infamous glory that still mesmerizes—and haunts—our civilization. The Athenian empire, as recounted by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, was exceptional because it was not the product of conquest but of mutual defense. No other empire, the Athenian delegates argue, had ever been formed in such a manner.
But the later plays of Euripides, including his Bacchae, are set in dire and dark times. Athens’ grand Sicilian conquest had failed. The Peloponnesian War had turned against Athens. And the city was suffering from civil war, sexual depravity, and the general disintegration of its society. Euripides might be reaching back to ancient and mythological figures, but their tales and fates are eerily similar to the Athens at the end of the fifth century on the eve of the death of Euripides. The darkness of Euripides’ tragedies coincides with the nadir of Athenian grandeur. It is well known that many of his plays composed during the Peloponnesian War (like the Trojan Women) are veiled commentaries on the state of Athenian society and the war itself.
The Athens celebrated by Athena and the transformed furies at the end of Aeschylus’ Eumenides—and the Athens eulogized by Pericles in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War—is not the Athens that Euripides composed his late plays to reflect. The Bacchae, among the last of Euripides’ plays, was composed in a tumultuous city filled with strife and conflict. And though the play is set in Thebes, the tragedy that befalls Pentheus is an esoteric commentary on the state of Athenian society and the insufficiency of the gods of the city.
Athena is the goddess of wisdom, of reason and persuasion, alongside being a strong goddess of war. But her wisdom and justice are what primarily define her. And that her name is bore by Athens—Athens is supposed to be the wise and just city in mirror reflection of its patron deity which exonerated Orestes and transformed the furies.
Something wicked comes to Greece. This is the reality of the situation when the Bacchae opens. Dionysus travels in from the eastern lands. Dionysus, though a nominally Greek god, is presented, by Euripides, as if a foreign oriental sex god. Moreover, the power of Dionysus is immediately made known to the crowd, or reader: “I come from Lydia, its territories teeming with gold; and from rich Phrygia. I am all-conqueror in the sun beaten steppes of Persia, the walled cities of Bactria, the wintry lands of Media, and in Arabia Felix—land of the blest. All Asia is mine, and along the fringes of the sea, the pinnacled glory of all those mingled cities of Greeks and many races.” Everywhere Dionysus goes he “conquer[s].” No land, whether south, east, north, or, now, west, can escape the consuming madness of Dionysus, Bacchus, and the Bacchants.
We may have now forgotten, but it certainly wasn’t lost on fifth century Athenians, that dancing is an intrinsically sexual act. Dancing is the great rite, the grand ritual, that Dionysus brings with him. As Dionysus proclaims, “Elsewhere, everywhere, I have established my sacraments and dances, to make my godhead manifest to mortals.” Elsewhere indeed, the chorus which lauds over Dionysus sings: “For sacred dances and joy…In the mountains the wild delight of Bacchus in his soul. His ritual he undergoes: Cybele’s orgies, great Mother’s, He shakes the thyrsus on high.”
The women of Thebes are entranced, as if sex slaves, by this new god and his rituals. They lose their cloths and their minds, dancing and howling wildly on the mountain at night. The social order of the city is so threatened that Pentheus orders Dionysus arrested and his men prepared for battle to put an end to this threat. Pentheus, as the King of Thebes, has a duty to protect his citizens and the social fabric (and order) of his civilization which he, correctly, perceives to be threatened by the arrival of Dionysus.
It is now well accepted that Euripides did not have a change of heart late in life. Euripides had always been critical of the gods. He was, at the eve of his death, still critical of the gods.
Moderns may be sympathetic to Dionysus, but Dionysus is hardly presented in any sympathetic light by Euripides. Euripides sees little good in Dionysus after he viciously and brutally turns on Pentheus, intoxicating the king who giggles like a girl and dresses like a woman to get a better view of the naked women of the city in their entranced ritual dancing and moaning. Pentheus, however, is not without fault. But as the play reaches its climax, we grieve for Pentheus, his mother, and his grandfather, but hardly shed a tear for Dionysus. In fact, we turn on Dionysus and wish to tear him limb from limb just as the Titans had done to him.
The contemporary reading of fun-loving Dionysus against power imposing Pentheus misses the obvious and more contextual reality of the play. Both Dionysus and Pentheus are engaged in an exercise of power and will and not “freedom vs. tyranny” as post-World War II readings tend to now assert.
The contemporary reading of fun-loving Dionysus against power imposing Pentheus misses the obvious and more contextual reality of the play. Both Dionysus and Pentheus are engaged in an exercise of power and will and not “freedom vs. tyranny” as post-World War II readings tend to now assert. Pentheus may have acted with impiety toward this foreign oriental sex god, but Pentheus certainly had the foresight, as the play reveals by his grizzly dismemberment at the hands of the women of the city—including his own mother—of the threat that Dionysus posed. In Pentheus challenging Dionysus, the king is not challenging the free-loving and free-playing Dionysus but challenging Dionysus’ lust for control and power. After all, when Dionysus is introduced, he proclaims his power of conquest and that all the world, sans Hellas, has been brought under his dominion.
The contest between Pentheus and Dionysus is one of power. Pentheus understands the arrival of this foreign sex-crazed god as a threat to his power but also the power and social order of Thebes. Dionysus, in seeing Pentheus’ seriousness in gathering his armies for battle and clearing out the mountains of the Bacchants, understands that his power is being threatened by Pentheus. Sacrilege and impiety are mere pretexts to kill the king, which is precisely what Dionysus concludes must happen for his power—not his free-loving and free-playing spirit—to survive. Irrespective of the reception and development of Dionysus in the subsequent tradition, the Dionysus of Euripides is a cold, lustful, and power-hungry dark god of vindictive cruelty. Dionysus is a god of dark fear and manipulation; his dark presence fills Pentheus with fear and, when Pentheus challenges Dionysus’ arrival, he manipulates the king to be torn limb from limb by his induced dancers.
Euripides’ gods are not the gods of Aeschylus though they bear the same name. No, Euripides’ gods are the gods of Hesiod given a new, cunning, and manipulative makeover. Furthermore, they are depicted as clear threats to the human social order. At least Hesiod’s gods fought among themselves and castrated the bodies and organs of fellow immortals instead of ripping humans limb from limb with their entrails spilling out into the laps of fanatically enraptured servants.
Dangerous Gods, Dangerous Love, and Tragic Humans
It seems to me that Euripides is a great and scandalous humanist as well as being morally astute to the problems concerning human relationships. Aeschylus’ human progress is still controlled by the gods, as indicated by Athena’s role at the end of the Eumenides. We labor with the gods and appeal to the gods in Aeschylus, but the gods have the final say.
Euripides’ human progress—if there is progress in his tragedies—is not in the hands of the gods but in the hands of humans. Pentheus is brutally torn apart by the women of Thebes who, once freed from Dionysus’ licentious spell, realize the depravity of their actions and mourn for him. Euripides, through Agave and the chorus, remind us of the brutality and harshness of the world, especially the classical pantheon whose gods raped, murdered, and controlled others at whim.
Dionysus, in standing over the dismembered body of Pentheus, and observing the tragic scene of a man’s mother holding her son’s head as if a lion’s head, defends himself by asserting that Pentheus’ impiety justified his death: “The sins of jealousy and anger made this Pentheus deal unjustly with one bringing blessings, whom he disgracefully imprisoned and assaulted.” But what blessings did Dionysus bring? Slavery and insanity are what Dionysus wrought. Indeed, Cadmus falls to his knees in slavery to Dionysus crying out: “Have mercy Dionysus, we have sinned.” But who brought forth the sin of filicide? Dionysus, not Pentheus or Agave. Agave’s final words are: “Let others meddle with Bacchants.” In tearing her son apart in a crazed stupor, Agave, apparently, has had enough of being a Bacchant dancer and has returned to her senses and wants nothing to do with the god who caused her to tear her son apart like a crazed beast.
It is the human characters who have—and manifest—moral realization in the play, not Dionysus. Cadmus awakens Agave and the women from their intoxication to see the horror and suffering they have wrought to poor Pentheus. Agave and the women take responsibility for their actions and weep for the king. In mournful exodus, it is the humanity of the Thebans freed from Dionysus which touches us most in this bleak and dark tragedy that W.B. Yeats recalled as if peering into the hollow sacristy to see the secretive and horrifying sacrament of a blood thirsty god made flesh to feast on the flesh of his victims. During the introduction to The Trojan Women, Euripides also presents Athena and Poseidon as conniving and jealous gods—making a pact to make the return journey of the Greeks as miserable as possible (even though Athena had fought on the side of the Greeks).
Though composed 25 years earlier than the Bacchae, Euripides’ Medea deals with this same theme of gods or humans for control of our destinies and dispositions. Medea has been slighted by Jason and her life and social standing has all been swept out from under her feet. Her brutal murder of her own sons is unforgivable. But Jason is equally not without any guilt. The gods are absent in this play but not without being invoked.
The rage of Medea brings death and destruction. The infidelity of Jason brings rage leading to death and destruction. In the second choral ode, Euripides tells us something scandalously shocking—at least in comparison to where Greek literature had been progressing up to his moment in time: “Love is a dangerous thing, Loving without any limit. Discredit and loss it can bring.” Love has entered the consciousness and vocabulary of the Greek literary-philosophical tradition in large part thanks to Homer and Aeschylus. However, love in Euripides is scorned, shown to be hollow, and ultimately something “dangerous.”
Moreover, love is also deconstructed throughout Euripides’ plays. The emphasis placed on love, as was the case with Medea, only came back to haunt her—indeed, love made her a slave and did not bring her salvation but cheaply disposed of her when socially and politically relevant.
Euripides’ plays show us the hollowness and vanity, indeed, the cruelty of the gods. Athena has been dethroned, and the empty gods who demand child sacrifices and capture entire cities and make them servile slaves have returned. Humans have once again been deprived of light and made into the toiling servants of the gods whose cruel fates and sadistic impulses can visit us at any time. Moreover, love is also deconstructed throughout Euripides’ plays. The emphasis placed on love, as was the case with Medea, only came back to haunt her—indeed, love made her a slave and did not bring her salvation but cheaply disposed of her when socially and politically relevant. (This too is true in the Trojan Women where the love exhibited by Hecuba and Andromache for a now burnt Troy and their slain husbands add to their misery.)
Are the gods worthy of veneration? In answering this question we must ask, which gods? The Greek gods went through many faces though they bore the same names. The gods born from Hesiod’s pen were cruel and lust-filled gods who engaged in patricide and usurpation. The gods of Homer are equally mischievous though Homer humanizes eros and gives us great hope as he shifts our concentration away from the gods and to fated human beings. The gods of Aeschylus are just and persuasive, rational and loving, gods we can relate with and ultimately become co-laborers with; Aeschylus provides the synthesis of the hateful gods of Hesiod and the fatalistic but humanistic love of Homer. The gods of Euripides are brutal, ruthless, and full of cruel surprises—the exact opposite of Aeschylus’ gods or the beautiful and sumptuously fleshy gods of the Catholic Renaissance painters. The gods of Euripides are bloodthirsty and call for virgin sacrifices to procure blessing in war.
Nevertheless, Euripides was a moralist. But he was not locating the heart of morality in the gods, the cosmos, or even in other humans. Euripides located the heart of morality in ourselves—as individuals free from the bonds of the gods (and yes, even other persons). If we do find equally moral people where love can flourish, as Andromache did with Hector, that is no guarantee of the good life either—just look at what happened to Andromache after Hector’s death and the sack of Troy and the agonizing pain Andromache subsequently suffered!
In this respect, Euripides was the first, and most dramatic, libertarian in Western history. We must look after ourselves and take responsibility for our actions. Only in accepting responsibility for ourselves and our actions can we have a social order worthy of being venerated and protected. The ultimate message of Euripides is the same message that Aristophanes has him speak in the Frogs: Be weary of trusting others for your salvation. That message has reverberated down through history ever since Euripides put it to dramatic form. In so many ways, Euripides was the oracle of modernity.
Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).