Professor Michael Steffes
Dionysus and Agave: A Story of Wrath
Walking into the town center beholding the bloodied head of her dead son, she exclaims “Come see the beast the daughters of Cadmus/ hunted down, not with nets, not with spears,/ but with the white nails of our hands” (76). Indeed Agave, had slain her own child under the spell of the Bacchae cast by her own nephew, Dionysus. His role of the god of madness and wine had driven her to act with a sort of intoxicated ruthlessness that the god himself embodies. His wrath is undeniably a force to be reckoned with, however, I am of the opinion that although you can find wisdom in his punishment for Agave, but there is no justice to be found.
We can describe wisdom as understanding of knowledge. Where, then, does this manifest itself in The Bacchae as demonstrated by Dionysus? In his understanding of the fate of Agave, of course. Hardened by the fact that his own aunt, Agave, would dare slander his mother, and resultantly him, he plans very intricately his damnation for his own blood:
When order is established, I’ll go on,
revealing my identity in other lands.
But if, by rage and force of arms and citizens
of Thebes drive the Bacchae from the mountain,
then I lead the army of my Maenads into war. (5)
His goal is simple. Either his family and the rest of Thebes accept him and let him go on with his worship, or he will declare holy war. He takes Agave under his Bacchic spell and, in some twisted poetic justice, she is forced against her own agency to partake in the rituals of the very god she rejected. However, at the same time her son and king, Pentheus, is distraught by her behavior, saying:
I’ll track them down, all of them, even Agave,
my mother and her sisters, Ino
and Autonoe, the mother of Actaeon.
I’ll have them all in cages (19).
His punishment for even his own family is dreadful. One can’t help but wonder if this is all a part of Dionysus’s master plan to punish Agave. She is damned to be either be a part of a nomadic cult for an unspecified amount of time or imprisoned. This understanding that Dionysus has certainly demonstrates wisdom. Nevertheless, how can this be justified when he is very clearly baiting his own cousin, Pentheus, into a trap? Not only has Dionysus taken his mother, but also the rest of the female population of Thebes. Clearly, this doesn’t sit will with the frustrated king who didn’t believe in the wonders of Dinoysus anyway. Dionysus surely knows this and contrives his master plan based off this logic.
After the destruction of Pentheus’s palace, countless warnings from Cadmus, and several signs that the young “priest” possesses godly powers, the young king goes along to spy on the Bacchae dressed as a woman with this young man from the mountain. When Dionysus makes this decision to take him up to the mountain, it’s very clear he is done trying to change the mind of Pentheus. He is caught saying “He’s in the net now, women. He’ll get to see/ his Bacchae. He’ll get what he deserves… to die” (51). Even though Dionysus shows his power in a multitude of ways, he doesn’t exhaust all options. What if he took Pentheus to the mountain and demonstrated the true nature of the Bacchae? If he was so frustrated with Pentheus, why didn’t he drive him to madness with his power as he did with Agave so he wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore? The reason is because what follows is vengeance, not justice. The plan is engineered to maximize suffering.
Without a doubt, what ensues is murder, and a brutal one at that. Drawing from contemporary examples, lets observe the connection between Dionysus and Charles Manson. Both are self-proclaimed gods, both have a cult following, and both use sex and substance abuse in ritual, both have the goal of inciting war, both have extreme control over their following, and both have instructed their following to kill extremely high-profile individuals. The only difference between the two is that Dionysus is actually a god and Manson is not. Cadmus puts it well when he says “Gods should not resemble mortals in anger” (85). If that is true, then Dionysus most certainly fails at this. When do you draw the line between godly and earthly privilege? At this point, you could even argue that what Dionysus does is fear mongering, as if to say “This is what happens when you reject my teachings.” He made an example out of his family, plain and simple.
Agave coming down from her entrancement, she’s completely and utterly bewildered. Under this spell, she had no recollection of what she had done, where she had been, or what she was holding which is perhaps the saddest part of the story. After her stupor, she utters the heartbreaking words:
Who is this person? Who is this corpse?
Who am I? How can I, in all reverence,
knowing that my hands dismembered him
and are polluted with his blood,
dare to touch him, dare take him
to my breast, dare sing his dirge to him? (81-82)
This really drives home the idea that this outcome was never her aim.
As for punishment, Agave and her sisters are banished, Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are turned into snakes, and Pentheus is dead. The consequences are long stretching. Thebes doesn’t have their royal family that has been in power for hundreds of years, let alone their king. What does that mean for the city? Without clear leadership, it could very easily collapse. Agave is forced to wander wastelands and comingle with “barbaric” foreigners, meaning a life of instability. The most disturbing, however is the punishment that Cadmus has. Simply for being the family of those who dared question the authority of Dionysus, he is turned into a snake. Even though he worshipped Dionysus, warned against his powers, and tried to persuade, in the eyes of a god, this just wasn’t enough. And what does Dionysus have to say after ruining the lives of his family? Nothing but blame on everybody but himself:
You beheld him. You beheld his lies.
His impudence. You beheld him
when he tried to chain me and abused me
and tried- and dared to try-
to punish me.
I am Dionysus! Behold me! (83)
If you haven’t already, right here you get a true sense of just how egocentric this god among men is. The whole charade was never about his family because them because he never cared about them. It was all a scheme for him to validate through force his own fragile image he has of himself.
There you have it. We can conclude that Dionysus has a plan to maximize suffering, not for justice. This punishment extends from Agave to the rest Dionysus’s family and takes it a bit too far. Agave’s punishment is not just banishment, but the knowledge she killed her own child and worshiped a vengeful god. Her suffering manifests throughout the duration of the play. Although Dionysus has godly resources, he plays games with mortals, tearing at their heartstrings and destroying the rest of their lives. Conclusively, you can find some degree of wisdom in the punishment that befalls Agave, there is no justice to be found.
Euripides, , and C K. Williams. The Bacchae of Euripides: A New Version. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990. Print.