3. "The Bacchae"

It should come as no surprise to us that Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, with their horror film background, should turn to Euripides' "The Bacchae" for inspiration. It's the original horror film in the canon of Western Literature, and a model for many of its successors. Its horror isn't just its bloodshed, but its psychological dimension: its characters are slowly led by their shortsightedness towards their own worst fears, even as they think they're doing everything possible to avoid them. The details of this play should be kept in mind as we explore the worlds of Hercules and Xena.

"The Bacchae" was a stylistic departure for Euripides. Instead of the gods appearing like a "deus ex machina", at the end or the beginning, arbitrarily dictating the play's events at key moments, the god of "The Bacchae" is also its chief human character: Dionysus takes the form of a mortal, using psychological persuasion to achieve his purpose. The play opens with Dionysus explaining his motivation for returning to his hometown of Thebes. He was born of a Theban woman, Semele, by Zeus in disguise. Hera punished her husband's infidelity by tricking Semele into demanding her lover reveal his true nature. After much arguing, Zeus reluctantly complied, and the revelation of his divine nature destroyed her like a lightning bolt. Dionysus left Thebes in shame, for its citizens believed his mother's sisters, who spread the rumor that he was not really a son of Zeus, but an illegitimate child.

He left for India, learned the secrets of the vine and the Great Mother of Phrygia, and taught his rites throughout Persia, showing the rest of the world that he was indeed a god. As the devotees of the Great Goddess joined with him, his influence grew, and now he returns to Thebes with an army of female followers, the bacchae (worshippers of Bacchus, Dionysus's ritual name), to "raise the women's ecstatic cry," and help establish his rites in Greece; those Theban women who previously denied his godhood went mad and became his maenads (frenzied devotees without inhibition). They left their households and male patrons and joined his bacchae in the hills, caught up in feverish dancing.

The male leaders of Thebes had various reactions to this social upheaval. The blind prophet Teiresias, and King Cadmus, who retired his throne, had resisted Dionysus, but now see opportunity in playing along. They go through the motions of the dance, and try to rationalize their embrace of this new religion. But the current ruler of Thebes, King Penthius, will have none of this. A young man with little experience of real life, Penthius looks on the others with disgust, particularly this "upstart god". He will lock up the bacchae and maenads in iron chains, and find the ringleader of this new cult, a man with flowing golden hair and the charm of Aphrodite in his eyes, known only as "The Stranger" (or "The Foreigner", depending on the translation). Penthius still believes that Dionysus was a bastard child, destroyed along with his mother by Zeus for lying about his divine parentage.

But it's his own mother, Agave, and his aunts, that he's worried about. They've joined the maenads in the hills, and he'll track them down and drag them back from the effeminate foreigner who turns Thebes' women into "harlots". Penthius is just the man to resist this sort of madness, he believes. He is the sort of rational Greek who doesn't fall for superstition or kept caught up in the clever words of every "oriental magician" that comes along. As he himself put it, "Oriental standards are altogether inferior to ours."

As instructed, Penthius's guards hunt down the Stranger to arrest him, but find him strangely confident in his captivity; he believes he is protected by Dionysus, and will be delivered from any prison he's kept in. He offers himself to be taken to Penthius, and when the two men meet, there is an almost a flirtatious subtext to their angry words, a point not lost on the perceptive Stranger: he sees Penthius's arguments as a rationalization for desires he can't acknowledge. He sums up the King's dilemma well: "You do not know what life you live, or what you do, or who you are."

Penthius tosses the Stranger in his dungeon, but before he sets off to rescue his mother from the hilltop revelries, a loud crashing is heard: flames leapt up from Semele's tomb and destroyed the royal stables. The Stranger walked out unharmed, having deceived Penthius into chaining up a bull instead of him. A herdsman arrives and explains that the bacchae camp has been located, and his mother and aunt have been sighted among them. Penthius is horrified as he hears tales of the women's superhuman strength as they captured bulls and cows, tearing them apart with their bare hands. Impervious to harm, they swarmed through the villages like war parties, looting and pillaging: "This outrageous Bacchism advances on us like a spreading fire...this is past all bearing, if we are to let women so defy us." Penthius assembles his men to attack, and vows to track them down like a hunter stalking his prey.

But his mood changes when the Stranger offers him a deal: he will summon the bacchae to the royal palace. Penthius rejects this, and prepares to ride to their camp. That's when the Stranger realizes that Penthius wants more than just to defeat the bacchae, otherwise he'd take the Stranger up on his offer:

The Stranger: "Aah! Do you want to see them sitting together on the mountains?"

Pentheus: "Yes, I do - for that, I'd give a countless weight of gold."

The Stranger: "But why do you feel such desire for this?'

Pentheus: "It would pain me if I saw them drunk."

The Stranger: "And yet you'd see with pleasure that which gives you pain?


The Stranger tests Penthius, to see how far he'll go to satisfy his prurient interests. He offers to dress him up as one of the bacchae, and teaches him the proper movements; Penthius doesn't resist: he insists to be made the image of those he's persecuting. As he does so, his single-mindedness starts to dissipate, and everything appears double, as if he were in a drunken state; even the Stranger looks like he's sprouting horns like a bull--very much like Bacchus himself, in fact! The chorus narrates what happens next, using hunting and animal terminology to describe a fantastical encounter between the young king and the maenads in the forest. Agave, his mother, discovers his son spying on them and, thinking he's a lion, beheads him. She brings his head to the palace to show the city her prey, realizing only then she has murdered her own son.

At that moment, the Stranger appears, and reveals his true nature: he is Dionysus himself, in human form, returned to Thebes to destroy the royal house that rejected him. Agave is exiled, and her father, Cadmus, along with his wife, a daughter of Ares, is doomed by the gods to become a monster, to wage war against the Greek civilization he helped found. Since he had only paid lip service to Dionysus, while rejecting the balancing power the god offers him over his own light and dark nature, Cadmus must now fall prey to his own dark side until, it is foretold, he will one day find redemption and become human once more.

On paper, the lesson of the play is to fear the gods, and certainly, the priests of Dionysus approved of its message, awarding it first prize. Euripides' intentions weren't religious, however. He wanted to examine the kind of destructive mentality that could lead a whole city to ruin. Penthius was a leader who had conviction without experience. What he thought were his values were really his fears: he persecuted those who expressed his unspoken desires, as a substitute for acknowledging and accepting his own contradictions.

"The Bacchae" is a play about the wisdom that comes of experience: of the world and of ourselves. This element is a key part of "Xena", and "Hercules" as well, though not always in quite the same way as dramatized by Euripides. The animalistic demon, the self-assured prophet, the liberating stranger, the seductive god, the insightful villain, the furious Amazon, and the brash youth, are all to be found, again and again, in these shows. The play's many elements--plot, character, style, and every shade of conflict--have been extracted and dispersed throughout them. By discovering where they occur, we can isolate them and identify where this play's influence ends, and others begin. In such highly referential shows, this is a necessary approach to understanding its entire meaning. When a story borrows heavily from well-known sources, as these do, it's a way of using popular works of great importance to the author to create a grammar for telling a new one (and it should go without saying that it's also a way to quickly borrow story elements already proven effective). Before we search the episodes for examples, let's take a quick look at "The Cyclops".



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