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,...