Is Dionysus Jesus?: Euripides’s Bakkhai

Euripides’ 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, the lead character, Pentheus, denies Dionysius’ virgin birth, in which his human mother is said to have been inseminated by Zeus. Pentheus also mocks his Bacchic followers. 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 mocked 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.

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

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, Pentheus, the very symbol of Apollonian order, puts on women’s clothing and enters the forest to spy on the erotic revelries of the Dionysian Bakkhai, with unexpected consequences to Apollonian control.

The British 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 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 me 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.com link to a translation of the play that I recommend. The introductory essay accompanying this translation is especially useful: 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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10 Responses to Is Dionysus Jesus?: Euripides’s Bakkhai

  1. wiley says:

    Dionysus does not have a virgin birth. He is born when Zeus impregnated his mother, but Hera is angry so destroys her, that is when Zeus sows him into his thigh. He is not Jesus, you are reading into the story too much.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Wiley:

    Historically, Jesus and Dionysus have long been equated. It’s not a new idea that I’ve brought to the story. And read the Bakkhai again—especially the beginning. The very premise of the play is that Dionysus takes revenge for the insinuation that he is the product of a human union (as opposed to the union of a divine being with his mother).

    —Santi

  3. wiley says:

    Dionysus is the god of wine, sex, and pretty much many other sinful acts. Was jesus full of revenge and blow up palaces?

  4. wiley says:

    not to mention what The maenads do to Pentheus while under Dionysis’ spell. He makes pentheus’ mother tear him into pieces with her very hands. You must be right though, since “they have long been equated” and their stories have so many strong similaities! I wouldn’t know though, its not like i have some shitty blog on the internet that makes everything I say a fact. Do some real research and stop being blinded by your faith. They are not related

  5. santitafarella says:

    Wiley:

    The link between Jesus and Dionysus is an old one. It has to do with a number of mythic parallels—from minor loose ones, like the association of both with a virgin birth and wine—to larger associations, the most obvious being the rending of the body and the undermining of Apollonian identity. It is the tearing of Jesus on the cross and the threat to the state that he represents that has been the association with Dionysus. Jesus is Dionysus on the cross, and the savaging of his body outside the walls of the city signal the city’s overthrow. He comes to earth as a Dionysian figure on his first coming and as an Apollonian ruler figure during the millenium.

    You seem defensive about any idea that Jesus might have any “polluting” associations with ancient Greek cultural archetypes, but it should be recalled that the gospels are written in Greek and the writers were Greek and would have had such associations in mind as they wrote (as would their audiences).

    —Santi

  6. wiley says:

    so perhaps you should change the title of this to “Is Jesus Dionysus?”

  7. santitafarella says:

    Wiley:

    The question—“Is Jesus Dionysus?”—is the concern that you brought to the play. I was trying to give contemporary readers who are already familiar with Jesus but not Dionysus, a route into approaching a play of Euripides’s that is not well known: to think of Dionysus in the light of the Christian gospels helps you understand some of the dynamics within the play. Of course, taking the return trip and reading the Bakkhai and then, say, the gospel of Mark, is also interesting.

    —Santi

  8. wiley says:

    You have a well written discussion and present your argument well Santi, my only problem that just because the two have similarities, be it birth or trial, their actions are very different. Dionysus is full of vengeance and can flip like a coin when it comes to his personality, while Jesus taught forgiveness and love. I am not sure whether Dionysus was really born on Dec 25th or if he was a “virgin” birth. The fact is that Zeus had sex with many mortal women and had children, this was a common affair, so to say he was the son of god is a little misleading.

  9. santitafarella says:

    Wiley:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you. Human beings are associative animals—metaphorical animals. We see lots of links rather quickly where few exist (just as we see causal connections that are, more often than not, just correlations). Astrologers, for example, benefit from these human association propensities, and spread their sillinesses, by exploiting them.

    And so I am not saying that any of the gospel writers sat down with the Bakkhai—or any other ancient text associated with Dionysus—and constructed the story of Jesus. I do think, however, that the human psyche contains certain characteristics—“human universals” and metaphorical commonalities—that land on similar mythic structures in the telling of stories. Gods, for example, in ancient Greek culture (and the gospels are ancient Greek cultural documents) are naturally not sullied by human intercourse, and so, if they are to maintain their reputations as incarnated beings, they mustn’t have a human father. This doesn’t mean that the story of Jesus’s virgin birth is derived from the Bakkhai, only that the story coheres with Greek expectations that were in the cultural air about what an embodied deity would possess for paternity (not a human father), and the insult that would accompany the claiming of one.

    As for Jesus teaching love and forgiveness, I think you miss the gospel writers’ clear (and I would argue anti-Semitic) condemnation of Israel and the wrath that would supposedly accompany Jesus’ rejection (the destruction of the city of Jerusalem). The vengeance subtext is not just there, but prominant (as it is in the Bakkhai). You mock and reject the gods, and persecute the gods’ followers, and you get a visitation of destruction.

    —Santi

  10. Anonymous says:

    Dionysus is more complex than one may give him credit… both Dionysus/ Jesus were pagan but Dionysus went from Pagan to befriend a Saint in training .. Then upon watching his friend gaining his sainthood had decided to become St. Dionysus, Jesus and Dionysus were to meet at Mt. Olympus where Jesus Fought off attackers while Dionysus trained his monks. Jesus At the Last supper was taught the art of water to wine, by the God Of vines/ Dionysus/ via transmorgification. The 2 were to have a strong friendship throughout the years, Jesus followed his teachings as 2 where Dionysus was to seek the path of totality well beyond heaven’s light.. both were good men dispite subtle differences. They were both healers/god’s of ressurection or living/ dying god’s .

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