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Invitation to World Literature


Read the Excerpt

Scene 1

Scene: Before the royal palace of Thebes. On the left is the way to the Cithaeron; on the right, to the city. In the center of the orchestra stands, still smoking, the vine-covered tomb of Semele, mother of Dionysus.
Enter Dionysus. He is of soft, even effeminate, appearance. His face is beardless; he is dressed in a fawn-skin and carries a thyrsus (i.e., a stalk of fennel tipped with ivy leaves). On his head he wears a wreath of ivy, and his long blond curls ripple down over his shoulders. Throughout the play he wears a smiling mask.

A maenad holding part of an animal that was sacrificed in a ritual.

I am Dionysus, the son of Zeus, come back to Thebes, this land where I was born. My Mother was Cadmus' daughter, Semele by name, midwived by fire, delivered by the lightning's blast. And here I stand, a god incognito, disguised as man, beside the stream of Dirce and the waters of Ismenus. There before the palace I see my lightening-married mother's grave, and there upon the ruins her shattered house the living fire of Zeus still smolders on in deathless witness of Hera's violence and rage against my mother. But Cadmus wins my praise; he has made this tomb a shrine, sacred to my mother. It was I who screened her grave with green of the clustering vine. Far behind me lie those golden-rivered lands, Lydia and Phrygia, where my journeying began. Overland I went, across the steppes of Persia where the sun strikes hotly down, through Bactrian fastness and the grim waste of Media. Thence to rich Arabia I came; and so, along all Asia's swarming littoral of towered cities where Greeks and foreign nations, mingling, live, my progress made. There I taught my dances to the feet of living men, Establishing my mysteries and rites That I might be revealed on earth for what I am: A god. And thence to Thebes. This city, first in Hellas, now shrills and echoes to my women's cries, their ecstasy of joy. Here in Thebes I bound the fawn-skin to the woman's flesh and armed their hands with shafts of ivy. For I have come to refute that slander spoken by my mother's sisters– those who least had right to slander her. They said that Dionysus was no son of Zeus, but Semele had slept beside a man in love and fathered off her shame on Zeus—a fraud, they sneered, contrived by Cadmus to protect his daughter's name. They said she lied, and Zeus in anger at that lie Blasted her with lightening. Because of that offense I have stung them with frenzy, hounded them from home up to the mountains where they wander, crazed of mind, and compelled to wear my orgies' livery. Every woman in Thebes—but the women only– I drove from home, mad. There they sit, rich and poor alike, even the daughters of Cadmus, beneath the silver firs on the roofless rocks. Like it or not, this city must learn its lesson: it lacks initiation in my mysteries; that I shall vindicate my mother Semele and stand revealed to mortal eyes as the god she bore to Zeus. Cadmus the king has abdicated, leaving his throne and power to his grandson Pentheus; who now revolts against divinity, in me; thrusts me from his offerings; forgets my name in his prayers. Therefore I shall prove to him and every man in Thebes that I am god indeed. And when my worship is established here, and all is well, then I shall go my way and be revealed to other men in other lands. But if the men of Thebes attempt to force my Bacchae from the mountainside by threat of arms, I shall marshal my Maenads and take the field. To these ends I have laid my deity aside and go disguised as man.

(He wheels and calls offstage.)

On, my women, women who worship me, women whom I led out of Asia where Tmolus heaves its rampart over Lydia! On, comrades of my progress here! Come, and with your native Phrygian drum– Rhea's drum and mine– pound at the palace doors of Pentheus! Let the city of Thebes behold you, while I return among Cithaeron's forest glens where my Bacchae wait and join their whirling dances.

(Exit Dionysus as the Chorus of Asian Bacchae comes dancing in from the right. They are dressed in
fawn-skins, crowned with ivy, and carry
thyrsi, timbrels, and flutes.)

Out of the land of Asia, down from holy Tmolus, speeding the service of god, for Bromius we come! Hard are the labors of god hard, but his service is sweet. Sweet to serve, sweet to cry; Bacchus! Evohè! –You on the streets!

–You on the roads!

–Make way!

–Let every mouth be hushed. Let no ill-omened words profane your tongues.

–Make way! Fall back!


–For now I raise the old, old hymn to Dionysus.

–Blessèd, blessèd are those who know the mysteries of god. –Blessèd is he who hallows his life in the worship of god, he whom the spirit of god possesseth, who is one with those who belong to the holy dance of god. –Blessèd are the dancers and those who are purified. who dance on the hill in the holy dance of god. –Blessèd are they who keep the rite of Cybele the Mother. –Blessèd are the thyrsus-bearers, those who wield in their hands the holy wand of god. –Blessèd are those who wear the crown of the ivy god. –Blessèd, blessèd are they: Dionysus is their god!

–On, Bacchae, on you Bacchae, bear your god in triumph home! Bear on the god, son of god, escort your Dionysus home! Bear him down from Phrygian hill, attend him through the streets of Hellas!

–So his mother bore him once in labor bitter; lightening-struck, forced by fire that flared from Zeus, consumed, she died, untimely torn, in childbed dead by blow of light! Of light the son was born!

–Zeus it was who saved his son; with speed outrunning mortal eye, bore him to a private place, bound the boy with clasps of gold; in his thigh as in the womb, concealed his son from Hera's eyes.

–And when the weaving Fates fulfilled the time, the bull-horned god was born of Zeus. In joy he crowned his son, set serpents on his head– wherefrom, in piety, descends to us the Maenad's writhing crown, her chevelure of snakes.

–Oh Thebes, nurse of Semele, crown your hair with ivy! Grow green with bryony! Redden with berries! O city, with boughs of oak and fir, come dance the dance of god! Fringe your skins of dappled fawn with tufts of twisted wool! Handle with holy care the violent wand of god! And let the dance begin! He is Bromius who runs to the mountain! to the mountain! where the throng of women waits, driven from shuttle and loom, possessed by Dionysus!

–And I praise the holies of Crete, and the caves of the dancing Curetes, there where Zeus was born, where helmed in triple tier around the primal drum the Corybantes danced. They, they were the first of all whose whirling feet kept time to the strict beat of the taut hide and the squeal of the wailing flute. Then from them to Rhea's hands the holy drum was handed down; but, stolen by the raving Satyrs, fell at last to me and now accompanies the dance which every other year celebrates your name: Dionysus!

–He is sweet upon the mountains. He drops to the earth from the running packs. He wears the holy fawn-skin. He hunts the wild goat and kills it. He delights in the raw flesh. He runs to the mountains of Phrygia, to the mountains of Lydia he runs! He is Bromius who leads us! Evohè!

–With milk the earth flows! It flows with wine! It runs with the nectar of bees!

Like frankincense in its fragrance is the blaze of the torch he bears Flames float out from his trailing wand as he runs, as he dances, kindling the stragglers, spurring with cries, and his long curls stream to the wind!

–And he cries, as they cry, Evohè!On, Bacchae! On, Bacchae! Follow, glory of golden Tmolus, hymning god with a rumble of drums, with a cry, Evohè! to the Evian god, with a cry of Phrygian cries, when the holy flute like honey plays the sacred song of those who go to the mountain! to the mountain!

–Then, in ecstasy, like a colt by its grazing mother, the Bacchante runs with flying feet, she leaps!

(The Chorus remains grouped in two semicircles about the orchestra as Teiresias makes his entrance. He is incongruously dressed in the bacchants' fawn-skin and is crowned with ivy. Old and blind, he uses his thyrsus to tap his way.)

Ho there, who keeps the gates? Summon Cadmus– Cadmus, Agenor's son, the stranger from Sidon Who built the towers of Thebes. Go, someone. Say Teiresias wants him. He will know what errand brings me, the agreement, age with age, we made to deck our wands, to dress in skin of fawn and crown our heads with ivy.

(Enter Cadmus from the palace. Dressed in Dionysiac costume and bent almost double with age, he is an incongruous and pathetic figure.)

The murder of Pentheus by the crazed Bacchae.

Euripides V, (The Complete Greek Tragedies, Vol. 7)

Edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore
University of Chicago Press, 1959