Monday, September 14, 2009

The Bacchae

Relief of a Dancing Maenad

ca. 27 B.C.–14 A.D.; Augustan
Pentelic marble; H. 56 5/16 in. (143.03 cm)

Euripides, the youngest of the three great Greek tragedians (after Sophocles and Aeschylus) spent the last year of his life in Macedon as a guest of the king, Archelaus, dying there in 408 BCE. His play The Bacchae took first prize at the festival in Athens after his death.

Euripides was known for his use of strong, complex female characters. In the Poetics, Aristotle writes that Sophocles portrayed people as they ought to be but Euripides portrayed them as they were.

Performances of The Bacchae bookend The Golden Mean. It's a darkly funny, violent play that features the god Dionysus descending in human form to humiliate a priggish king for his disrespect. The god persuades the king to dress as a woman and sneak in to observe his mother and her friends engaged in Bacchic rites. The women uncover the deception but in their frenzy fail to recognize their king and rip him to pieces. His own mother carries his head home, believing she's killed a mountain lion, and only slowly recovers to realize she's dismembered her own son.

The play was a court favourite in Pella, and I open the novel with a performance of it for the royal family. Aristotle befriends the play's director, a fictional character named Carolus, who encourages the young Alexander's interest in the theatre. The novel ends (neatly, I hope!) with Philip's murder at a performance of The Bacchae , part of celebrations for his daughter's wedding.

The image above is of a dancing Maenad or Bacchante, a female follower of Dionysus (Bacchus). Notice her thyrsus, a long stick wrapped with ivy symbolizing her fidelity to the god, and her gorgeously flowing robes.


Unknown said...

I am so looking forward to reading your novel. I am just putting the finishing touches on a long historical about the fall of Alexander's dynasty. Of course I have spent lots of time in Pella, Mieza etc and just wrote a new travel article about Mieza. I also live in Vancouver and teach writing classes for VSB. I write historical fiction as well as travel. Alexander has been my Muse since I was 17 years old! And that's a long, long time. Look forward to your book and perhaps some time even meeting you.

Unknown said...

PS you can see my blog here at I have sometimes put snippets of my novel there. My real name is Ruth Kozak.