How Euripides’ Bacchae creates an image of the Maenads
Maenads, the exclusively female followers of Dionysus, loomed large in the imagination of Graeco-Roman artists. Since Maenadic cults shrouded their proceedings in secrecy, most of what we know about them comes from artistic interpretations like vase paintings and plays. And perhaps the most famous play about Maenads, who were also known as Bacchantes, is Euripides’ Bacchae. In the tragedy, the king of Thebes, Pentheus, and his mother Agave are punished by Dionysus after rumours spread that he is not the son of Zeus. When read with a pinch of salt, it’s one of our most detailed sources on the customs and rituals of Maenadic worship. In the spirit of Halloween, let’s imagine what sort of costumes the Bacchantes would have worn in Euripides’ adaptation.
1. Choral Mask
When the Bacchae debuted, all the actors were men, and all of them wore masks. Most likely inherited from Dionysiac ritual, masks clearly identified the roles of each actor, which might have been difficult to gauge for audience members who had to sit far away from the stage. They were usually made of linen, and they covered the actor’s entire head.
In the Bacchae, Dionysus wears his hair long and says it is sacred to the god (i.e. himself, but he’s in disguise, so he refers to himself in the third person). Worshippers often grew their hair long as a show of reverence, and Maenads in ancient art have their hair down. In fifth century Athens, long hair was also typically associated with femininity and alien cultures—Pentheus derides Dionysus for his long hair and threatens to cut it off, which inevitably does not end well for him.
3. Ivy crown (Gk. στέφανος, στεφάνη)
Crowns made of plants were a common feature of Greek ceremonies; priests wore them during sacrifices and they were prizes at athletic contests. Specific plants represented different gods. Evergreen ivy was a symbol of Dionysus because he was often associated with the concept of rebirth and renewal.
4. Thyrsus (Gk. θύρσος)
The thyrsus was a wand usually wrapped in ivy with a pine-cone stuck on top of it. It was supposed to have magical abilities, and it could also be used as a weapon. In the Bacchae, the Bacchantes use it to make a spring of fresh water and wine spout out of the ground. In ancient art, there are images of Maenads fending off aggressive satyrs with their thyrsi. Euripides often compares them to weapons.
5. Wool ribbons (Gk. στέμμα)
Also translated as “wreath, garland, chaplet, esp. of the priest's laurel-wreath, wound round a staff” (στέμμα, LSJ), wool ribbons protected the people who carried them through the power of their patron divinity.
Fawnskin cloaks were the holy garment of Bacchantes. Along with the thyrsus, it was the most iconic element of a Maenad’s outfit. In poetry, the fawn is a natural representation of playfulness and innocence, but throughout the play it also serves as an ominous reminder of the hunt. The chorus sings a gorgeous, yet haunting, fawn simile right before Dionysus leads Pentheus to his doom.
7. Kettledrum (Gk. τύμπανον)
The kettledrum is basically a tambourine without the jingly bits. Originally an important symbol for the festivals of the goddess Cybele and of Zeus, the kettledrum was eventually incorporated into the rites of Dionysus. According to myth (and Euripides), the banging of the kettledrum hid baby Zeus’ cries from Kronos. Additionally, another name for Dionysus was Bromios, which literally means the “roarer”. This name referred to his manifestations as a powerful bull and lion deity as well as his ability to cause earthquakes. Since kettledrums also “roar,” they became associated with Dionysus’ Bromios persona. When Maenads danced in religious ecstasy, they were often accompanied by music, and what better way to bring in sick beats than with a kettledrum?
8. The Complete Look
Even though Euripides provides an extremely sensationalised portrayal of the Maenads, his vivid descriptions continue to enchant and terrify modern audiences.
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Theatre mask image: Mosaic detail from the House of the Faun https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theatre_mask_mosaic_MAN_Napoli_Inv9994.jpg
Jonathan Van Ness image: https://www.facebook.com/jonathan.vanness/photos/a.586562771483904/646190285521152/?type=3&theater
Maenad profile image (cropped): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mainade_satyros_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2654.jpg
Thyrsus image: EasyVectors.com https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thyrsus.jpg
Pelike fawn vase image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pelike_fawn_BM_F315.jpg
Tympanum image: Filippo Coarelli (ed.): Pompeji. Hirmer, München 2002, ISBN 3-7774-9530-1, p. 170
Maenad relief sculpture image: Originally posted to Flick (http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaqarbal/207276812/), Cc-by-sa-2.0. Photographer: Luis García. Date: 09-VII-2006. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M%C3%A9nade_relieve_romano_(Museo_del_Prado)_04.jpg
Shout-out to Oxford classicist Matthew Schaffel, whose Texts and Contexts presentation on Euripides’ Bacchae inspired this article.