The Representations of Dionysian in Bacchae and Art

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The Representations of Dionysian World

In Bacchae and Art

Dionysus was the son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Semele, the daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, and he was the last god that became an Olympian. Dionysus had an unusual birth which caused him to have some problems about fitting into the Olympian Pantheon. In fact, the problem lies behind the mortality of Dionysus’s mother, Semele. According to the mythology, when Hera discovered the relationship between Zeus and Semele, she decided to deceive them. Appearing as a crone, Hera established contact with Semele and managed to perplex her about the splendor of his divine lover. The seeds that Hera planted in Semele’s mind caused Semele to have miscarriage and die. However, while Semele was miscarrying, Zeus rescued the baby and hid it into his thigh until the baby was ready to be born. Lastly, Dionysus was born from the thigh of Zeus and this gave Dionysus immortality. When Dionysus grew up, Hera struck him with madness and then, Dionysus started to be mentioned as the god of madness. As it can be seen, even from the strange birth, Dionysus was always a part of differences in Greek mythology. In order to construct the figure of Dionysus better by taking his different characteristics into consideration and understand the mythological stories in which Dionysus is the leading figure, it can be a significant step to examine the representations of the characteristics of Dionysus, the companions of him and some mythological events in which Dionysus has a big role both in art and “Bacchae” of Euripides.

To begin with, one of the well-known characteristic of Dionysus and the followers of him is putting on an ivy crown. It is easy to see the representations of ivy crown both in work of art in fifth century and “Bacchae”. In “Bacchae”, while the chorus, which consists of women companies of Dionysus, is calling out to the Thebes at the beginning of the tragedy, they command that “… crown your head with an ivy crown” (Sutherland, 7). As another example, when the people in Bacchae start to go mad, a herdsman comes to Pentheus and tells what is happening in Bacchae. The herdsman says that he has seen some mad women which crown their heads with an ivy crown (Sutherland, 34). Furthermore, after Pentheus dies, a messenger comes to the stage and tells the story of Pentheus’s death. The messenger points out that before the mad women, which are called the Maenads, attack Pentheus, they are sitting in a gorge among the cliffs and all of them have ivy crowns (Sutherland, 50). As it can be understood, the ivy crown is one of distinctive attributes of Dionysus and his companions in “Bacchae”. In fact, if the fifth- and sixth-century vase paintings are examined, the importance of ivy crown can be recognized again. In his book, Thomas H. Carpenter points out that in almost every vase paintings about Dionysus in fifth- and sixth century, Dionysus wears the ivy crown. He states that in these paintings, the companions also often have ivy crowns (Carpenter, 110). It is obvious that both in the works of art and in the tragedy, “Bacchae”, the ivy crown is one of the common symbols to represent Dionysus and his companions.

Besides the ivy crown, thyrsus is another object that is used to represent the characteristics of Dionysus and his companions both in art and in “Bacchae”. In Bacchae, while Dionysus is talking with Pentheus as a stranger, Pentheus takes the thyrsus from Dionysus’s hands. By referring the thyrsus, Dionysus says that“… I carry the god’s own staff” (Sutherland, 24). Later in the tragedy, after Pentheus dies, Dionysus tells Cadmus, Pentheus’s grandfather, and Agave, Pentheus’s mother that Pentheus has deserved the death since besides not to believe in him, Pentheus has insulted him in different ways such as by seizing his own thyrsus(Sutherland, 66). By combining these two parts of tragedy, it is crystal clear that thyrsus has a profound importance and it...
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