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The Bacchae | Study Guide


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Episode 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Episode 1 of Euripides's play The Bacchae.

The Bacchae | Episode 1 | Summary



Tiresias, the old Theban prophet, arrives at the palace to meet his friend, Cadmus, the former king of Thebes. They plan to make their way to Mount Cithaeron to worship Dionysus. They don fawn skins and bear the ivy-capped stalks (thyrsus) favored by Bacchants. As they head toward the mountain, they begin to feel energized.

Pentheus appears on stage. He is lost in thought and does not see the two old men. He has been away from Thebes but has "heard about disgusting things going on," namely the Theban women leaving the city to engage in vulgar worship of "some upstart god." The runaway women—his mother and her sisters—have deeply disconcerted him. He sees their behavior as a mere excuse to engage in drunken depravity. Having already ordered their capture and return to Thebes, Pentheus learns more disturbing news: a flamboyant Dionysian priest has arrived with a group of female followers.

As Pentheus grumbles about this new problem, he notices his grandfather, Cadmus, and Tiresias dressed in Bacchic garb. He turns his ire on them, mocking them over what he considers "ridiculous" and "foolish" behavior. Tiresias defends Dionysus as the counterpart to Demeter, a well-respected god. Demeter has given humankind food. Dionysus has given humankind wine, which eases pain, facilitates sleep, and inspires joy. As Tiresias points out, "Apart from wine, / there is no cure for human hardship." Perhaps, Dionysus, with the power of ecstasy, deserves reverence.

Tiresias also claims that the story people hear about Dionysus having been stitched into Zeus's thigh is wrong. The truth is Zeus brought the infant Dionysus to Olympus, but Hera wanted to throw him out. So, Zeus hatched a plan. He broke off a piece of sky and fashioned it to look like Dionysus, which he gave to Hera. Meanwhile, he sent the young god to be raised by nymphs. Over time, he says, sky became thigh.

Cadmus attempts to reason with his grandson, suggesting Pentheus should acknowledge Dionysus as a god, even if he is not. Doing so will honor Semele's name—it will honor the family—and that is a good thing. He also reminds Pentheus of Actaeon, who had boasted of being a better hunter than Artemis, but who wound up torn to pieces by his own dogs.

Pentheus is unmoved by Tiresias's argument. He angrily sends his grandfather away and then sends his men off to destroy the hutch where Tiresias keeps birds, believing this will harm the old man. He then orders another group of his men to find and "capture this effeminate stranger, / who corrupts our women with a new disease, / and thus infects our beds."


Here the audience learns more of Dionysus's past and the foreboding consequences of fear, anger, and jealousy. Pentheus's response to the news he hears includes both fear and anger. He is afraid of what he does not understand, and he's angry that he, the new king, has clearly lost power. As Tiresias points out to him, chaste women would not be susceptible to the sort of defilement Pentheus has been worrying about. Repeatedly, Cadmus appeals to Pentheus to join the community and live and believe as the people he rules do. He tells Pentheus that Dionysus wants "to be praised communally, without division." Here, religious beliefs and social norms intersect. However, Pentheus divides himself from the people, choosing instead his desire for power over them.

Tiresias also provides a fascinating way of thinking about religious belief. It could be considered a backhanded critique of religion, one Plato echoes in his dialogue, Euthyphro (c. 399–95 BCE). There, Socrates is in conversation with a young theologian, Euthyphro, who is prosecuting his own father for murder. He defends his action by reference to the gods. Socrates, in apparent disbelief, asks Euthyphro if he really believes the stories of the gods: "Do you really believe that the gods fought with one another, and had dire quarrels, battles, and the like, as the poets say, and as you may see represented in the works of great artists?" To which, Euthyphro says yes, he could tell even more amazing stories of the gods' actions. Tiresias's dialogue with Pentheus might serve as a sort of compromise—a way to preserve religious belief. The story Pentheus apparently mocks, the one in which Zeus stitches the infant Dionysus into his thigh, is indeed false. This, however, does not mean belief in the god is unfounded. Tiresias's corrected story, which identifies the source of the original error that created the fantastical account, is much more plausible. As such, it is worth considering. Moreover, if Dionysus really does have the monumental power it is said he has, it makes more sense to embrace than reject him. The proof is to be seen in the power of wine and the Maenad's madness.

That said, Tiresias's dialogue also suggests another reason to believe in this new divinity. He assails Pentheus's position as unwise:

Don't be too confident a sovereign's force
controls men. If something seems right to you,
but your mind's diseased, don't think that's wisdom.

All this leads to a significant question: What is a good reason to have a belief? Euripides seems to suggest fear is not a good reason. First, Tiresias and Cadmus reflect a fear-based religious belief. Second, Pentheus reflects a fear-based social belief. Cadmus and Tiresias want to preserve their lives—they don't want to make Dionysus mad. Pentheus wants to preserve social order, which does not allow women—mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives—to engage in drunken and orgiastic religious rites. The displays in Dionysian rituals are raw and frightening in their passion. As such they are well out of the bounds of accepted conduct. Their passion also reflects an ingrained fear of women as fundamentally irrational. Indeed, the women are in a hypnotized state, not at all in control of their thoughts and actions. In this condition, they realize society's worst fears about women; they are uncontrollable and prone to chaotic conduct that undermines social stability and organization.

The dialogue between Tiresias and Cadmus, and the older men's response to Pentheus's negative attitude toward Dionysus, reveal the tensions between the traditional way of Theban life and a new—and foreign-born—religion. Euripides forces the audience to think about how they might react to the new and unfamiliar.

It is worth noting both Dionysus and Pentheus must be young. The conclusion can be drawn from the characters in the play: Cadmus is said to be an old man, and Agave and her sisters are still young enough to race off to the mountain to worship Dionysus, tear apart cows with their bare hands, and, eventually, murder Pentheus. In some respects, Dionysus and Pentheus are typical of young people: impetuous, aggressive, sexual, and deeply emotional. As the audience learns later from the messenger's dialogue, Pentheus is mercurial: "Your mood changes so fast I get afraid— / your sharp spirit, your all-too-royal temper."

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