In Your Trance You’re Not Unfortunate: Atheism vs. Theism in Euripides’s Bakkhai

In scene 3 of Euripides’s ancient tragedy, Bakkhai, is a brief passage that overbrims with implications for the atheist vs. theist divide. Addressed to the anti-theist Pentheus, king of Thebes, a messenger calls on him to reconsider his hostility toward the divine and receive the god Dionysus into the heart of his city:

Receive the god, whoever he may be,

Into our city, because his power is great—

Both in other matters and also, as I

Have heard them say, in this: it’s he who gave

To mortals the vine that stops all suffering.

And if wine were to exist no longer, then

Neither would the goddess Aphrodite,

Nor anything of pleasure to mortals.

For the purpose of reflecting on this passage, let’s treat Dionysus as a stand-in for God. In Greek myth, Dionysus is representative of wine, ecstatic revelry, change, disintegration, and violence. But he is also associated with love, peace, and beauty. Like God in general, Dionysus has energetic, nervy, and seemingly contradictory attributes. Thus notice, from the first two lines above, that the messenger has no idea of Dionysus’s nature—who, exactly, this mysterious being is. He only knows that we, as humans, are in the thick of his presence, and that he represents a terrifying and disruptive force whose “power is great.” From a mortal vantage, Dionysus is capable of unleashing astounding suffering on humans.

But here’s the kicker: the very same god who terrifies and unleashes pain also delivers to humans a compensating gift: “the vine that stops all suffering.”

Were we to reject the fermented grape—this merciful intoxicant given to us by Dionysus—then we would go naked, as it were, against the full force of the god’s power and truth, which is change, suffering, and death. Having abandoned all access to illusion, our life energies—even our very desire to go on living—would wither:

To mortals the vine . . . stops all suffering.

And if wine were to exist no longer, then

Neither would the goddess Aphrodite,

Nor anything of pleasure to mortals.

The bad consequences the messenger attributes to giving up Dionysian intoxication in the face of harsh reality is strikingly similar to the consequences that Reinhold Niebuhr, in his 1940 essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith,” attributes to the surrender of meaning generally: 

Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.

And what facilitates Niebuher’s “trust that it [life] has meaning”?

I would argue that it is an intuition—a faith—that is bolstered by intoxication (and by intoxication I mean that one comes under the spell of an image, an idea, a persona, a myth, a narrative, an illusion, a delusion).

This is how I think that Euripides also saw it. For him, Dionysian wine intoxication was representative of a menu of related intoxicants, among them being the following:

  • charismatic ecstasy
  • dance, music, poetry
  • cult ritual
  • sex
  • trance
  • drama itself

Here, for example, is part of the chorus’s song in scene 1 of the Bakkhai:

[S]acred Mount Olympus

Slopes gravely downward—

Lead me there, Bromios! [another name for Dionysus]

Bromios, god of ecstatic

Cry who guides the Bakkhai!

There we will find the Graces,

There we’ll find Desire,

There the very law is

To celebrate your mysteries!

The Graces with a capital “G” tend to be associated with such things as beauty, song, dance, poetry, sex, fertility, and birth. These are just some of the gifts, given by the gods, to help us go on in the face of Dionysian horror.

And notice this telling passage. It appears in scene 5. Pentheus’s mother, Agaue, in a state of Dionysian possession, has just severed the head of her own son, and, in a trance, is bearing it in her arms. She thinks she carries the head of a lion. Kadmos, Pentheus’s grandfather, observes the horror of the scene, but notes that it will only be tragic for her when her Dionysian spell breaks:

Oh  . . . When you begin to understand

What you have done, you’ll suffer terribly.

But if, till the end, you were to stay like this,

As you are now, you’d not be fortunate,

Although, in your trance you’re not unfortunate.

In other words, to be fortunate one’s objective circumstances must be good, and one must see that they are good. But, if they are objectively not good, to go on wanting to live you must have hope in the future or come under the illusion that your present condition is good: “in your trance you’re not unfortunate.”

Atheists, in facing humanity’s bleak condition squarely, without hope that suffering, death, and nihilism (the universe’s seeming purposelessness and our nothingness in it) can ever really be overcome, have declined, as it were, the delusional gifts of Dionysus.

But wait. Have they really done so?

Some atheists, despairing of life, have taken to drinking heavily. Others, like Ray Kurzweil, have taken to looking for technological ways that they might cheat death, live for centuries, and so become “transhuman.” Still others go on believing that they have free will, or pour themselves into utopian politics, their families, or their work without ever putting up their head to have a glance at the larger picture.

These too, I would argue, are the gifts of Dionysus, the god of escape and derangement. 

Like King Oedipus, in another ancient play, few of us can really face our realities squarely without, as it were, plucking out our eyes at some level. The compensating gifts of Dionysus are all around us, as are his terrors.

Wisdom thus suggests that we not wholly abandon the gifts of Dionysus. As one messenger put it near the end of the Bakkhai  (in scene 5):

Wise moderation and a reverence

For what is of the gods—this is what’s best.

And this, I think, of all possessions owned

By mortals, is the wisest one to use.

And Pentheus’s grandfather, Kadmos, in the closing scene of the play, suggests that the Bakkhai  itself—the dramatic witness of his grandson’s anti-theist folly and tragic death—should be reflected upon, as a stage play, by those contemplating the complete abandonment of the gods:

Anyone who feels

Superior to the gods should study this:

Pentheus is dead—believe in the gods!

The above pastoral image of Dionysus is from Pompeii, the volcano not yet erupted.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to In Your Trance You’re Not Unfortunate: Atheism vs. Theism in Euripides’s Bakkhai

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Hmmm. Oddly enough this reminds me of a Huffington Post article describing a secular humanist arguing against the “new atheism.” (I know, why would I read the Huff Po? Well know thine enemy and so forth)

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/24/secular-humanist-takes-on_n_512153.html

    • santitafarella says:

      What I like about you, Andrew, is that you have strong views but stay right in the thick of things, reading blog and internet sites that frequently take positions diametrically opposed to your own.

      Do you know how rare that is?

      You not only do not engage in “epistemic closure,” you look to keep things open.

      —Santi

  2. Pingback: What is the Universe? « Prometheus Unbound

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