The Bacchae

The Bacchae Summary and Analysis of Lines 370-519

From Choral Ode ("Holiness, queen of heaven") to the exit of Attendants with Dionysus held captive (Lines 370-519):


The Chorus delivers an ode about Pentheus' blasphemy ("Holiness, queen of heaven, / Holiness on golden wing / who hover over earth, / do you hear what Pentheus says?") They praise Dionysus' gifts and warn of the fate of men who overstep mortal limits. They speak of the holy places of the earth and the devout worship of common people. As the people do, so will the Bacchae.

Attendants enter, bringing a bound Dionysus (disguised, remember, as a mortal). One of the Attendants reports that the man surrendered without struggle; he also tells Pentheus that the Maenads who were captured earlier have escaped. The chains on their legs snapped, and the women fled. The Attendant warns: "Sir, this stranger who has come to Thebes is full / of many miracles. I know no more than that. / The rest is your affair" (ll. 450-2). Pentheus orders that Dionysus' bonds be loosed. He mocks the god's soft, pretty looks, and then he begins to question him about the new religion. Dionysus claims to be a man of Lydia. He claims that Dionysus, in person, gave him the new rites for this new religion. Dionysus refuses to answer many of Pentheus' questions, saying that the answers are not for the uninitiated. They trade snappy comments, with Pentheus growing increasingly angry. Pentheus cuts off the god's curls, and he takes away his thyrsus. He also orders that the god be put in prison, chained. When Dionysus warns the attendants not to chain him, Pentheus repeats the order: "But I say: chain him. / And I am the stronger here" (ll. 503-4). Dionysus gives the famous response: "You do not know / the limits of your strength. / You do not know / what you do. You do not know who you are" (ll. 505-7). Pentheus intends to enslave the women of the Chorus. Dionysus promises that Pentheus will suffer for his blasphemy.


The initial encounter between Dionysus and Pentheus is a brilliantly written scene, condensing many of the issues of the play into a relatively short exchange between the man and the god. It is loaded with dramatic irony: Dionysus insists, again and again, that the god is present and sees everything that is going on. As he exits, he promises Pentheus that in manacling him, he puts chains on Dionysus himself. The language of metaphor, so common in religion, becomes literal. Bacchus is a god of this world. The fruits of his worship are here, in this life. His presence takes the common religious metaphors about God's presence and transforms it into flesh and blood. He is here, now, no distant or indifferent deity.

Euripides sets up a number of parallels and contrasts between Pentheus and Dionysus. They are cousins, and both are young. Dionysus is a young god, and Pentheus is practically still a boy: we learn later that he does not even have a full beard yet, which would put his age at no older than his late teens. The dialogue implies that Pentheus is physically robust; he refers repeatedly to wrestling, mocking Dionysus' obvious inability to match him in that kind of struggle. Dionysus is soft, pretty, effeminate. Pentheus is a ruler of the mortal world; Dionysus rules in the spiritual realm.

Their confrontation is the symbolic clash between a number of different forces. Pentheus' questions and Dionysus' answers reveal that two very different kinds of knowledge are at work here. Pentheus goes about the interrogation like a well-trained detective: there is method, with clear goals in mind. There are also definite assumptions, and an attempt to be rational. Pentheus' questions revolve around knowledge as a form of control. Categorization and definitions constitute this kind of knowledge, and it is to be used as a means to order. Dionysus claims a different kind of knowledge, but he also calls his knowledge "sense," i.e. what is correct and obvious. He maddens Pentheus by refusing to play into the interrogation as expected. His answers are elusive, defiant, supple.

The theme of amathia comes up in Pentheus' outright rejection of other forms of wisdom. In the Choral ode that begins "Holiness, queen of heaven. . ." the Chorus speaks of the devout worship of common people. The Bacchae reject the need to feel above common piety; in fact, they embrace simple devotion. Here is the theme of piety versus skepticism. By the end of the play, Euripides shows us the excesses of both. Pentheus' immediate and outright rejection of the new piety is hardly rational. Though Pentheus claims that the devotees of the new religion are ignorant, there is nothing enlightened about his raving rejection of the new faith.

His mind is completely closed: when Dionysus tells him that foreigners in many lands now worship Bacchus, Pentheus responds that foreigners are more ignorant than Greeks. It is a very typical Greek attitude, and here Euripides touches on the theme of the Other, the exotic, the foreign. Dionysus' response is unequivocal: in this matter, foreigners are wiser. The difference is in custom, but there is nothing automatically wiser about the Greek way of doing things. The Greeks looked at foreigners with a mix of fear and contempt. Euripides takes away the all-too-easy comfort of contempt, although he does not necessarily take away fear. Customs differ. Certain truths about men do not; the Greeks who look with disgust on the customs of foreigners are distancing themselves from certain truths about man. Pentheus' problem is that he fails to see the connection between himself and the new cult. The god is his own cousin, and the rites correspond to truths that touch all men, himself included. Dionysus' powerful indictment of Pentheus is a warning against self-ignorance: Pentheus thinks he is in control. He believes he is the stronger, but he does not even know his own true nature.

And in Pentheus' response, the young king gives up his claims to being the more rational man. Pentheus, unable to verbally master Dionysus, decides to use brute force. He humiliates Dionysus but cutting the god's curls, and he puts the young god in chains. He also resolves to enslave the Bacchae. There is nothing rational about this brutality. A wise man, even a skeptic, makes room for people's beliefs.

A wise man does not lie to himself about his own nature. Pentheus speaks with great disgust for Dionysus' looks, saying with contempt that the real god of this new cult is Aphrodite. He speaks, again and again, about the lewd rites that supposedly take place in the mountains. But his ranting about these supposed orgies reveals his own sexual curiosity. As he questions Dionysus, he asks repeatedly what the Maenads do in the mountains. When Dionysus eludes the question, Pentheus' angry retort is an unintentional confession: "Your answers are designed to make me curious" (l. 474). This curiosity foreshadows how Dionysus will later trap Pentheus, using the boy's own imagination as bait. Remember that Pentheus is a young man, a teenager; sexual curiosity is natural for a boy of his age. And as with many who speak vehemently against sexual expression, not far beneath the surface lurks a powerful fascination for all things sexual.