The Bacchae

name= The Bacchae

caption = Pentheus being torn apart by Agave and Ino, Attic red-figure vase.
writer = Euripides
chorus = Bacchae, female followers of Dionysus
characters = Dionysus
Second Messenger
setting = Thebes
premiere = 405 BCE

"The Bacchae" ( _el. Βάκχαι / "Bakchai"; also known as "The Bacchantes") is a Athenian tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BCE as part of a tetralogy that also included "Iphigeneia at Aulis", and which Euripides' son or nephew probably directed. [Rehm (1992, 23).] It won first prize in the City Dionysia festival competition.

The tragedy is based on the mythological story of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agavë, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (who is Pentheus' cousin).


The Dionysus in Euripides' tale is a young god, angry that his mortal family, the royal house of Cadmus, has denied him a place of honor as a deity. His mother, Semele, was a mistress of Zeus, and while pregnant, she was killed because she looked upon Zeus in his divine form. Most of Semele's family, however, including her sister Agave, refuse to believe that Dionysus is the son of Zeus, and the young god is spurned in his home. He has traveled throughout Asia and other foreign lands, gathering a cult of female worshippers (Bacchantes), and at the start of the play has returned to take revenge on the house of Cadmus, disguised as a blond stranger. He has driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts, into an ecstatic frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on Mount Cithaeron, much to the horror of their families. Complicating matters, his cousin, the young king Pentheus, has declared a ban on the worship of Dionysus throughout Thebes.


Dionysus first comes on stage to tell the audience who he is and why he decided to come to Thebes. He explains the story of his birth, how his mother Semele had enamoured the god Zeus, who had come down from Mount Olympus to lie with her. She becomes pregnant with a divine son; however none of her family believe her, thinking the illicit pregnancy of the more usual sort. Hera, angry at her husband Zeus' betrayal, convinces Semele to ask Zeus to appear to her in his true form. Zeus appears to Semele as a lightning bolt and kills her instantly. At the moment of her death however, Hermes swoops down and saves the unborn Dionysus. To hide the baby from Hera, Zeus has the fetus sewn up in his thigh until the baby is grown. However, Semele's family—her sisters Agave, Autonoe, and Ino, and her father, Cadmus—still believe that Semele blasphemously lied about the identity of the baby's father and that she died as a result. Dionysus comes to Thebes to vindicate his mother Semele.

The old men Cadmus and Tiresias, though not under the same spell as the Theban women (who include Cadmus' daughters Ino, Autonoe and Agave, Pentheus' mother), have become enamored of the Bacchic rituals and are about to go out celebrating when Pentheus returns to the city and finds them dressed in festive garb. He scolds them harshly and orders his soldiers to arrest anyone else engaging in Dionysian worship.

The guards return with Dionysus himself, disguised as his priest and the leader of the Asian maenads. Pentheus questions him, still not believing that Dionysus is a god. However, his questions reveal that he is deeply interested in the Dionysiac rites, which the stranger refuses to reveal fully to him. This greatly angers Pentheus, who has Dionysus locked up. However, being a god, he is quickly able to break free and creates more havoc, razing the palace of Pentheus to the ground in a giant earthquake and fire. Word arrives via a herdsman that the Bacchae on Cithaeron are behaving especially strangely and performing incredible feats, putting snakes in their hair in reverie of their god, suckling wild wolves and gazelle, and making wine, milk, honey and water spring up from the ground. He tells that when they tried to capture the women, the women descended on a herd of cows, ripping them to shreds with their bare hands (Sparagmos). Those guards who attacked the women were unable to harm them with their weapons, while the women could defeat them with only sticks. Dionysus wishes to punish Pentheus for not worshipping him or paying him libations. He uses Pentheus' clear desire to see the ecstatic women to convince the king to dress as a female Maenad to avoid detection and go to the rites, as is shown in the dialogue::Stranger: Ah! Would you like to see them in their gatherings upon the mountain?:Pentheus: Very much. Ay, and pay uncounted gold for the pleasure.:Stranger: Why have you conceived so strong a desire? :Pentheus: Though it would pain me to see them drunk with wine-:Stranger: Yet you would like to see them, pain and all. [Euripides. Ten Plays by Euripides. Trans. Moses Hadas and John Mclean. New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p.299]

Dionysus dresses Pentheus as a woman and gives him a thyrsus and fawn skins, then leads him out of the house. Pentheus begins to see double, perceiving two Thebes and two bulls (Dionysus often took the form of a bull) leading him.

The god's vengeance soon turns from mere humiliation to murder. A messenger arrives at the palace to report that once they reached Cithaeron, Pentheus wanted to climb up an evergreen tree to get a better view of the Bacchants. The blonde stranger used magic to bend the tall tree and place the king at its highest branches. However, once he was safely at the top, Dionysus called out to his followers and showed the man sitting atop the tree. This, of course, drove the Bacchants wild, and they tore the trapped Pentheus down and ripped his body apart piece by piece.

After the messenger has relayed this news, Pentheus' mother, Agave, arrives carrying the head of her son which she herself had pulled off. In her possessed state she believed it was the head of a mountain lion; she proudly displays it to her father, eager to show off her successful hunt, and how brave she had been. She is confused when Cadmus does not delight in her trophy, his face contorting in horror. By that time, however, Dionysus' possession is beginning to wear off, and as Cadmus reels from the horror of his grandson's death, Agave slowly realizes what she has done. The family is destroyed, with Agave and her sisters sent into exile. Dionysus, in a final act of revenge, returns briefly to excoriate his family one more time for their impiety. Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are turned into snakes. Tiresias, the old, blind Theban prophet, is the only one not to suffer.

Modern interpretations

Dramatic versions

Joe Orton's play "The Erpingham Camp" (television broadcast 27th June 1966; opened at the Royal Court Theatre on 6th June 1967) relocates "The Bacchae" to a British Butlin's-style holiday camp. An author's note at the beginning of the text of the play states that: " [n] o attempt must be made to reproduce the various locales in a naturalistic manner. A small, permanent set of Erpingham's office is set on a high level. The rest of the stage is an unlocalised area. Changes of scene are suggested by lighting and banners after the manner of the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of Shakespeare's histories."Orton, Joe. 1976. "The Complete Plays". London: Methuen. p.278. ISBN 0413346102.]

In 1970 Brian de Palma filmed Richard Schechner's dramatic re-envisioning of the work, "Dionysus in '69", in a converted garage. [imdb title|id=0065641|title=Dionysus in '69]

Wole Soyinka adapted the play as "The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite" with the British National Theatre in London in 1972, incorporating a second chorus of slaves to mirror the civil unrest in his native Nigeria.

Caryl Churchill and David Lan used the play as the basis of their 1986 dance-theatre hybrid "A Mouthful of Birds".

"The Bacchae 2.1", a theatrical adaptation set in modern times, was written by Charles Mee and first performed in 1993. [" [ The Bacchae 2.1] " on the web.]

In 2007 David Greig wrote an adaptation of "The Bacchae" for the National Theatre of Scotland starring Alan Cumming as Dionysus, with ten soul-singing followers in place of the traditional greek chorus. A critically-praised run at New York's Lincoln Center Rose Theater followed the show's premiere in Scotland. [ [ "A Greek God and His Groupies are Dressed to Kill", New York Times" theatre review by Charles Isherwood, July 5, 2008] ]

Operatic versions

Harry Partch composed an opera based on "The Bacchae" titled "Revelation in the Courthouse Park". It was first performed in 1960, and a recording was released in 1987.

Another opera based on "The Bacchae", called "The Bassarids", was composed in 1965 by Hans Werner Henze. The libretto was by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Musical versions

Peter Mills created the musical "The Rockae" using the "The Bacchae" as its foundation. Dionysus, a glamorous rock star in every sense of the word, seeks revenge on those who denied him as a babe. The performance is complete with a swarm of groupie dancers dancing wildly to the electric guitar numbers.

ignificant quotations

:Dionysus: "It's a wise man's part to practise a smooth-tempered self-control.":Dionysus: "Your [Pentheus'] name points to calamity. It fits you well." (The name "Pentheus" derives from πένθος, "pénthos", grief):Messenger: "Dionysus' powers are manifold; he gave to men the vine to cure their sorrows.":Dionysus: "Can you, a mortal, measure your strength against a god?"


* Theodore Alois Buckley, 1850: prose: [ full text]
* Henry Hart Milman, 1865: verse
* Edward P. Coleridge, 1891: prose: [ full text]
* Gilbert Murray, 1911: verse: [ full text]
* Arthur S. Way, 1912: verse
* D. W. Lucas, 1930: prose
* Philip Vellacott, 1954: prose and verse
* Henry Birkhead, 1957: verse
* William Arrowsmith, 1958: verse
* Moses Hadas and John McLean, 1960: prose
* Geoffrey Kirk, 1970: prose and verse
* Robert Bagg, 1978: verse (as "The Bakkhai")
* Michael Cacoyannis, 1982: verse
* Matt Neuberg, 1988: verse: [ full text as PDF]
* Ian Johnston, 2003: verse: [ full text]
* Colin Teevan, 2003,: verse (as "Bacchai")
* George Theodoridis, 2005: prose, full text: []
* Michael Valerie, 2005: verse: [ full text]
* Michael Scanlan, 2006: verse (La Salle Academy: Providence, RI)

ee also

* Apollonian and Dionysian



* Rehm, Rush. 1992. "Greek Tragic Theatre." Theatre Production Studies ser. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415118948.
* [ Ian Johnston, "An introductory note to Euripides' "Bacchae"]
* [ ClassicNotes about the Bacchae]
* [ Bacchae Video]
* [ Bacchae Stage Play Video] ------

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • The Year’s Best Horror Stories — The Year s Best Horror Stories war eine jährlich erscheinende Anthologie des US amerikanischen Verlags DAW Books. Als Donald A. Wollheim 1971 zusammen mit seiner Ehefrau Elsie diesen Verlag gründete, war unter den ersten Veröffentlichungen neben… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • The Performance Group — (TPG) was an experimental theater troupe started by Richard Schechner in 1967. TPG s home base was The Performing Garage in NY s SoHo district. TPG was an environmental theatre which meant that each production took place in an entirely redesigned …   Wikipedia

  • Bacchae (comics) — Superteambox| caption= comic color=background:#ff8080 team name=Bacchae publisher=Marvel Comics debut= Fantastic Four vol. 3 #7 creators= status=Unknown base=Tartarus, Wall Street alliance color=background:#c0c0ff members=Bloody Mary Diane Sabine …   Wikipedia

  • The Bassarids — Hans Werner Henze …   Wikipedia

  • Bacchae — [bak′ē] pl.n. [L < Gr Bakchai < Bakchos,BACCHUS] 1. Gr. Myth. women companions of Bacchus 2. priestesses of Bacchus 3. the women who took part in the Bacchanalia …   English World dictionary

  • Bacchae — /bak ee/, Class. Myth. 1. the female attendants of Bacchus. 2. the priestesses of Bacchus. 3. the women who took part in the Bacchanalia. [ < L < Gk Bákkhai, pl. of BÁKKHE maenad] * * * …   Universalium

  • Bacchae — noun plural Etymology: Latin, from Greek Bakchai, from Bakchos Bacchus Date: 1639 1. the female attendants or priestesses of Bacchus 2. the women participating in the Bacchanalia …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Bacchae — Bac•chae [[t]ˈbæk i[/t]] n. pl. 1) myt the female attendants or worshippers of Bacchus 2) myt the women who took part in the Bacchanalia • Etymology: < L < Gk …   From formal English to slang

  • Bacchae — n. (Greek Mythology) priestesses of Bacchus; women who participated in the Bacchanalia; maenad, bacchante, female follower of Bacchus …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Bacchae, The —  Play by Euripides …   Bryson’s dictionary for writers and editors

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.