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The Bacchae | Study Guide


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The Bacchae | Symbols



In Greek mythology, the bull is one of Dionysus's sacred animals. Dionysus appears to Pentheus as a bull. The cattle herder recounts how the Maenads hunted and killed bulls in a ritual dismemberment. His followers believed him to be the incarnation of the sacrificial animal. Dionysus is often depicted as a bull in Greek art and religious images, perhaps in part because in Orphic festival hymns, he is invited to come as a bull, or referred to as "bull-faced." The bull is only one aspect of Dionysus, perhaps the most aggressive, violent, and fearful side of the god.


A thyrsus is a fennel rod (fennel is a plant from the carrot family with yellow flowers and feather-like leaves) that, when adorned with ivy, becomes a symbol of Dionysus. The thyrsus is a transformational and also phallic symbol. The fennel rod acquires the power of the thyrsus when the Dionysian worshipper is crowned with leaves and raises it. The chorus urges Thebes to crown itself with ivy as a symbolic conversion to the religion. Striking the thyrsus on the ground produces, milk, wine, and honey, representing nature's abundance, and its usefulness to humankind.

When Cadmus and Tiresias leave the palace to worship Dionysus, Euripides has Tiresias declare he will garland his head and make a thyrsus. This is intended to show his respect for the symbolic value of the items. Similarly, Pentheus reveals his awareness of the thyrsus' symbolic power when, in addition to threatening to cut off the stranger's hair, he demands the young man hand over his thyrsus.

Fawn Skin

Fawn skin is standard dress code for devotees of Dionysus. The fawn is playful and graceful, but also prey. The chorus admonishes Theban citizens to don "spotted fawn skins"; Tiresias arrives at the palace to meet Cadmus, with whom he has agreed to dress in fawn skins as part of their preparations to worship Dionysus; Pentheus ridicules Tiresias and Cadmus for donning fawn skins; Dionysus tells Pentheus he will provide "a dappled fawn skin" as part of the latter's disguise; and the chorus sing of being happy, "like ... playful fawn," after escaping the hunters' nets. All those in the play who don the fawn skin become like prey to Dionysus's violence and vengeance. The fawn skin suggests that humans, being mortals, are equal to natural animals, such as the deer.

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