Euripides’s “Bakkhai”: Is Dionysus Jesus?

Euripides’s “Bakkhai” is an extraordinary play, and functions on many fascinating levels. At one level it can be read as an indictment of rationalism, and a warning to the audience against atheism. Toward the beginning of the play, for example, the lead character, King Pentheus, denies Dionysus’s virgin birth, in which his human mother is said to have been inseminated by Zeus.

King Pentheus, as a ridiculer of the Dionysian cult, also mocks his Bacchic followers, and even arrests and persecutes some of them. They do not resist arrest, and submit to their tormenter. 

Thus the play’s story-line, in many respects, strikingly anticipates the Christian gospel, in which the followers of a wronged god (Jesus), as well as the god himself, is ridiculed by the authorities of a city, yet nonviolently submit to arrest, and ultimately see the city’s authorities overthrown.

The god Dionysus says in his opening monologue: “[Pentheus] is at war with diety itself . . . Making no mention of me when he calls upon the gods. But I will show to him and Thebes that I was born a god.”

Dionysius’ boast reminds me of Jesus’s parable of the vineyard in the gospel of Mark.

The Bakkhai can also be read as a meditation, ala Nietzsche, on the tensions between Apollonian order and Dionysian metamorphosis. At one point in the play, for example, King Pentheus, the very symbol of Apollonian order, puts on women’s clothing and enters the forest to spy on the revelries of the Dionysian Bakkhai, with unexpected consequences to Apollonian control.

Literary critic Terry Eagleton, in his recent book on terrorism (titled “Holy Terror”), reads the play as a kind of Apollonian-Dionysian parable of imperial order fighting barbarian chaos, and applies insights from “The Bakkhai” to the world since 9/11.

The play can also be read as a kind of affirmation of admitting the Dionysian into life, and that the god can be enjoyed and appeased, if only people will honor his energies, and be neither too afraid of them, nor too naive concerning their ultimate power.

For me, the Bakkhai of Euripides reminds one of the relentless nature of the Dionysian, and has the same sober effect as watching the terrifying, and relentless killer, in the film, “No Country for Old Men.”

Here’s the Amazon link to a translation of Euripides’s play:  http://www.amazon.com/Bakkhai-Greek-Tragedy-New-Translations/dp/0195125983/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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