There be dragons!

Monday, January 30, 2012

The risen lord... Dionysus?

Statue of Dionysus

Full text of the Bacchae online at

This may seem a radical statement to make but the connections btwn Euripides' Dionysus in "The Bacchae" and the image of the Christ in Christian mythology bear a striking resemblance.  The basic movement of the play consists of
  1. an initiatory introduction, 
  2. the imprisonment and bursting from the prison house, 
  3. the patiens of Pentheus (maddening him, tearing him to shreds)
  4. the ascendancy of Bacchus

This movement is very similar to the Christian story which consists of
  1. the initiatory miracles and teachings
  2. the arrest and interrogation
  3. the patiens of Christ (via dolorosa, Crucifixion, death)
  4. the ascendancy of Christ

Many of the theophanic images (transfiguration, earthquake, exaltation) are similar - there is even a pieta of Agave with Pentheus' remains.  The incarnational aspect exists as well when Dionysus claims at the beginning of the play to have "transformed myself, assumed a mortal shape, altered my looks, so I resemble any human being."

Moreover, though we think of the Christ only as love he also has a terrifying aspect as judge at the cataract of doom.  This resembles Dionysus who intends to force Pentheus "to acknowledge Dionysus, son of Zeus, born in full divinity, most fearful and yet most kind to men."  

"The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo - notice the bold and terrifying posture of Christ as judge of the damned.

What then is the sin of Pentheus and of all Thebes?  Perhaps it is first and foremost the refusal (rather than simple neglect)to acknowledge divinity in the god - but this sin is propounded by the violent and sadistic insistence on order and control and then by the mocking prurience which leads him to seek out the "debaucheries" of the Bacchants on mount Cithaeron.  He is a creature consumed with pride who thinks everything is known, materialistic, under his control.  Things that defy his small world view must be crushed, chained, whipped, beheaded or tortured.  

Furthermore his pride is not limited to him alone but extends to the whole house of Cadmus who sowed the dragon teeth and to all the dragon race of Thebes.  Pentheus refuses the divinity of Dionysus, Cadmus makes a game of the divinity and urges his grandson to "lie royally" about religion.  Agave herself, after having killed her son, says that "In my pride I did not recognize the god, Nor understand the things I ought to have understood."  She, along with her sisters Ino and Autonoe, denied even the possibility that their sister, Semele's, pregnancy might be a divine conception and for this denial they are driven mad onto the hills of Cithaeron.  What, we wonder, would our reaction be if someone told us they had been impregnated by the god and now carried a divine child?  What might our reaction have been to the conception of the Christ were we to have lived at the time?  Is it possible on the one hand that our pride gets in the way of accepting even the remotest possibility of another world?  Is it possible that every conception is a divine thing and every child a divine child - and thus that every person is a sacred thing beyond our reckoning?

Bowl bearing the image of Bacchus at sea - vine grows from center of bowl (the omphalos, or navel) and spreads outward to the rim of the world, the heavens.
This story is not, therefore, merely a beatdown by strong gods on weak mortals.  Nor is it a story of madness or some macabre tale of human butchery punctuated by writhing, goth-like girls extolling the greatness of Bacchic drug use.  It is a play, rather, about the problem which our whole race faces, namely blinding hubris.  

DIONYSUS proclaims as he rises above the palace door: "Yes, I am Dionysus, son of Zeus.  You see me now before you as a god. You Thebans learned about my powers too late.   Dishonouring me, you earn the penalty. You refused my rites."  Consequently, to save mankind Dionysus must destroy mankind.  Hubris is only cured, it would seem, by great pain and suffering; "the fool in his heart has said there is no god"; wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord; drasanta pathos, pathei mathos.

For Euripides this correction of hubris follows the ancient rites of the land, planting, growing, harvesting, returning the leftovers to the earth, fallow season, and repetition.  The play has numerous elements of agricultural worship, the Eleusinian cult of Ceres, the most prominent of which is the shredding of Pentheus like the old stalks shredded and returned to fertilize the earth.   Pentheus threatens to "behead" Dionysus even as the stalks of wheat are beheaded.  Dionysus is shut in the prison of the earth like the seed in the ground and emerges after earthquake and tumult just as the seed riots out of the earth as the new shoot. Pentheus is dressed as a woman even as the sacrificial goat that fertilizes the land is dressed as a woman.  The king's shredded remains are cast about like the shredded old stalks scattered by happy women drunk on alcohol.   The play rests primarily on agricultural imagery but the rising from the ground, growth, ascendancy to the flower is itself an allegory for the growth of the mind/soul, the nous, to full self-awareness.  The "flower" of the mind is the awareness of one's place in the world: self-awareness: "Buddha-mind": coming to know.
Siddhartha Gautama who transcended the limitations of this world's pain and achieved full consciousness, self-awareness, or "Buddha mind". 

We must also bear in mind that Pentheus and Dionysus are closely related; they are cousins, Dionysus clings to Pentheus like a vine, both share the cross-dressing tendency, put on masks, are "kings" in their own right.  Consequently, to a great degree, Pentheus and Dionsysus are the same person.  When Pentheus is shredded Dionysus is right there and himself endures the shredding; like Osiris before him.  Thus our identification with Pentheus (we agonize over the description of his left arm being ripped from his body while he continued "shrieking as long as life was left in him") is also an identification with Dionysus.  When the god ascends at the final part of the play we ascend, hubris dispelled, with him.
The Tree of Life in Jewish Mysticism that leads to higher levels of consciousness.

The play is in essence about the abolition of pride in order to break out of the prison house of the one-dimensional and therefore deadened perspective of finality, and like the seed to ascend to a heaven of self-knowledge, self-awareness; gnothi seauton.  Pentheus' death is our death which must occur for our growth.  His shriek is our shriek.  His being "born high" is our reentry into the city of the chastised life - the head, or intellect, or conscious mind returning after great trauma to the visible world, now with a contrite heart.  Yet in such contrition the old self is exalted as a "vine-shoot", a "young lion-cub", a "young calf".  We are dead to ourselves so that, as Christ says,

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Or as echoed by Saint Paul,

as far as this world is concerned, you are already dead, and your true life is a hidden one in God, through Christ.

and again to the Colossians,

Consider yourselves dead to worldly contacts: have nothing to do with sexual immorality, dirty mindedness, uncontrolled passion, evil desire, and the lusts for other people's goods, which amounts to idolatry. It is because of these very things that the holy anger of God falls upon those who refuse to obey him. And never forget that you had your part in those dreadful things when you lived that old life.

And to the Romans,

Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead...

So, my brothers, the death of Christ on the cross has made you "dead" to the claims of the Law, and you are free to give yourselves... to another, the one who was raised from the dead [Christ], that we may be productive for God. While we were "in the flesh", the Law stimulated our sinful passions and so worked in our nature that we became productive--for death! But now that we stand clear of the Law, the claims which existed are dissolved by our "death", and we are free to serve God, not in the old obedience to the letter of the Law, but in a new way, in the Spirit.

It follows, my friends, that our lower nature has no claim upon us; we are not obligated to live on that level. If you do so, you must die. But if by the Spirit you put to death all the base pursuits of the body, then you will live.

And what of the sexual element?  So much is made of the homosexuality and the violence that people frequently overlook that Pentheus' death scene is loaded with heterosexual imagery.  Throughout the play there are references, puns, images of sexuality; everyone is "drumming with their thyrsus" and the land oozes with milk and honey while the Bacchants "frisk about" on the hills.  But most telling is Pentheus' switch from being the draconian Fascist dominatrix to becoming the perverted leering prurient.

PENTHEUS: [to one of his armed servants]

You there, bring me my weapons.  [to Dionysus] And you, No more talk!  Keep quiet!

DIONYSUS: Just a minute! [moving up to Pentheus] How'd you like to gaze upon those women out there,  sitting together in the mountains?

PENTHEUS: I'd like that. Yes, for that I'd pay in gold—and pay a lot.

Diagram of Chinese mysticism - greater understanding of the world through knowledge of the balance, or T'ao.

There are two explanations for this; either A) Euripides is a bad writer and has here an extremely awkward plot device or B) the nature of sadism is the flip side of the nature of sexual perversity.  I tend to think the latter is true and that Euripides is making a profound comment on the nature of our religious malady.  Violence, torture, sadism all used to follow in the examination of the conscience under the heading of "lechery", a heading which also included looking at pornography, committing adultery, and engaging in masturbation.  The sins of violence and the sins of sexuality both view the world as something to be dominated - the enacting of our "inexorable will" on the world at large (including our fellow men & women).  In such a world beauty, the divine realm, cannot be perceived and one lives in a tomb of impious negligence akin to somnambulent or zombie existence.  Dionysus can turn Pentheus' so quickly and handily because Pentheus' is already engaged in the thought pattern that leads to perversion.

Cup showing the death of Pentheus at the hands of the Maenads.

Additionally, the scene of Pentheus' death is rife with sexual connotations.  The scene occurs in a "valley full of streams with steep cliffs on either side" - like unto the "valley of the shadow of death" but also akin to the birth canal, the dark passage of the vesica piscis from which our life first crowned.  We either revere this setting as a holy grove or see it as a place of terror, desire, or mockery; giggling and tittering like immature boys gazing into Playboy for the first time.  Pentheus, of course, has come to stare with gaping mouth at what he thinks is going to be debauchery.  He wants to see miracles; people clothed in soft raiment.  And he thinks that he can engage in such actions with impunity, hidden in the cross-dressing madness which Dionysus has prompted him to.  

What he sees is vaguely sexual in nature but mostly mild and peaceful.  The women with "breasts swollen with milk" nurse wolf cubs and snakes; lie together in peace and with decorum; are arranged in orders of three.  Then Pentheus climbs a "high pine tree" overlooking the ravine; a tree that is shredded by women.  He experiences a physical intensity in his death similar to romantic ecstasy, an experience which, for most men, creates sensations similar to pain.  When he falls to the ground Pentheus lets out a long unending shriek and falls exhausted to the earth.  He is eventually torn to pieces by the women which he has abused (including his mother).  His failure to see the world, women, his fellow humans, as worthwhile has opened him up to this awful destruction.

But his misery, death, and dismemberment are also the means of the ascendancy of Dionysus.  He and Dionysus are one and as the one dies the other grows upward toward the sun.  Pentheus, whose name means tears, is destroyed and shredded, tears are destroyed, such that the god, Dio, might be all in all.  Pentheus' death, as bloody as it is, allows for the epiphany of Agave and Cadmus, the ascendancy of the god, and the conclusion of the mythical rite.

Mattheus Grunewald's "Resurrection" panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece - note the brilliance of the rosette in the midst of the surrounding darkness and the "stalk" of the winding sheet leading up to the resurrected figure.

Perhaps we forget in a Christianity encrusted with 2000 years of shifting imagery, the violence and blood of life, the tremendous nature of our sexuality & birth, and the potential for hubristic self-delusion; but in Euripides' play we can reconstitute that patiens which leads us to Calvary, or Cithaeron, wherein we die with the god in the hope of rising again to our ascendancy.

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