Maenadian Metamorphoses

Jacqueline Pollard

Maenadian Metamorphoses

            The terrifying figures of the Maenads appear periodically throughout Ovid’s Metamorphoses to signify an upheaval of the normative, masculine-identified social order, which was exemplified by military, political, and imperial authority (Sharrock 95). The god of wine, dance, and debauchery, Bacchus, typically led such disruptions of order. Known as Dionysus in the Greek world, he was “defined by madness. Homer refers to him as mainomenos, and the subsequent [literary] tradition connects Bakkhos, Bakkheios, and related epithets of the god with Dionysiac mania” (Schleiser 93). In Metamorphoses, the god’s approbation of irrationality is seen in its extreme totality by his female followers, the Maenads, or by Maenad-like women who typify the potential for feminine madness within and without the bounds of culture. Bacchae are identified or alluded to in three of the Metamorphoses’ tales–those of Pentheus, Orpheus, and Procne–and each features a variation on the traditional Maenad.

The Bacchantes who destroy Pentheus appear to be under the god’s influence (and, perhaps, acting his will). The Maenads sacrifice Orpheus when their madness is exacerbated by rage at his preference for young men. However, in what is perhaps the most disturbing exploration of cruelty, the story of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus, the women are compared to (rather than named as) Maenads. Each of these sets of female figures negatively reflects cultural institutions, for they are bound up with issues of authority, sexuality, and family.

Graeco-Roman social norms were largely based on a variation of Aristotle’s “Golden Mean.” Scholar Alison Sharrock identifies this as autarky, which is “control of the self both internal (in the emotions) and the external (in political liberty)” (96). Personal autarky extended to civic custom (where it was illustrated by cultural institutions such as the army and family), for it affected “the interactions of power and identity in terms of slavery, class, and race” (96 n.5). Moreover, the ideals of masculine behavior also provided a base by which to define female roles and behaviors. Often, women are described in simple opposition to the ideal; they were, for example, seen as “passive and weak” (96), and rigid social roles served to restrict women’s behaviors and liberties. In contrast, when touched by Bacchus, and “possessed by the madness of [the god], women suddenly found themselves free of the patriarchially imposed definitions of self, womanhood, and sanity” (Evans 18). Essentially, the god provided an outlet for feminine frustrations and passions.

Bacchus was always prepared to shatter individual autarky; falling under his influence, much less actively communing with the god, meant contracting his madness–the privileging of emotion and unrestrained pleasure over reason and human dignity. Consequently, Bacchus was continually “active to disrupt the city’s order and routine” (Turcan 289). The god’s presence displaced not only individual stability, but also (by extension) cultural constructions that regulated class, gender, and civic roles. In myth and literature, Bacchus induces social chaos as “he disquieted, tormented, and released pent-up feelings. He sent a wind of madness through the town” (Turcan 289). Overcome by the god’s presence, the urban populace shed their civilized natures and fled the town to “debauch, ravish, and rave, driven by sleepless revels, wine, night-time clamouring and shouting” (Livy qtd in Evans 116). Ovid notes such an urban upheaval, and the mix of genders and classes who react at Bacchus’ arrival in Thebes; he lists “men and women,/ The old, the young, patricians and plebians,/ All mixed together, swept along, half frantic/ Toward unknown celebrations” (3.530-33).[1] This matches reports of late-antiquity Bacchic cults in which both men and women participated in ceremonies. However, the followers most closely, and consistently, associated with Bacchus are not typical men and women, but satyrs and Maenads.

Both groups revel in excess, and signify a desire “to escape the human condition by way of bestiality, taking the lower route among the animals” (Detienne qtd. in Evans 156-7). Despite their human characteristics (half-man, half-goat), the satyrs are most often animal-identified. Additionally, they are notably lascivious–the satyr’s raw sexuality contrasts with civilized men’s self-control (Jameson 46-7). On the other hand, the Maenads indicate the loss of humanity from irrationality. It appears that, in rejecting social constructions, the Maenads refuse their capacity for reason.

The Maenads are human women from all classes, who Ovid describes as “dressed alike, in skins/ Of animals; all [the females] would unbind the ribbons,/ Let the hair stream, wear garlands, carry wands/ Vine-wreathed” (4.7-10). Exchanging fabricated clothing for furs and allowing their hair to hang indicates a rejection of social custom and an embrace of nature–not a cultivated or romanticized nature, but a feral, uncivilized force. The women carried a thyrsus, a wand wrapped in ivy (a ceremonial anti-spear). In the wild, the Bacchic “orgy allowed the Bacchant to emerge from the “ego” to be united with the god in the ecstatic exaltation of omophagia, dancing, and wine” (Turcan 296). The most controversial of these activities, omophagia, was the handling and consumption of raw flesh, typically that of a sacrificed animal.[2] A ritualized rejection of the civilizing influence, omophagia “affirm[ed] participants’ links with untamed animal behavior otherwise regarded as below human dignity” (Evans 155). If the practice did exist, it had “assumed the form of a symbolic ritual in the Hellenistic era” (Turcan 311). This symbolism might well have transferred into literature, where omophagia appears to be replaced by the Maenads’ dismemberment of masculine bodies: men are sacrificed to women’s anger, whether at the god’s direction or of their own volition.

In literature, the Bacchae are often summoned to indicate female characters’ irrationality, but this “is not presented as the madness of actual Dionysiac maenads, but of figures who are compared or identified with bakkhai or mainades [. . .]” (Schleiser 94). Yet the Maenad signifies more than insanity; she is synonymous with brutality, especially crimes against her family. Collectively, “Maenads and bakkhai [. . .] are frequently associated in Greek literature with violent death, especially with the murder of their own male offspring” (Schleiser 97). Certainly, Maenads and Maenad-identified women perform horrific acts in the Metamorphoses. In context, their sadism is representative of the thread of cruelty that runs throughout the poem.

One example of Metamorphoses’ brutally graphic episodes is that of Marsyas, the flayed satyr, whose condition Ovid describes in explicit detail (3.385-400). Typically, critics have explained Ovid’s sensationalism as a “concession to the taste of the Roman public and a concession that does not seem the have been grudgingly granted” (Galinsky 138). Philip Hardie agrees that violent exhibitions were common in Imperial Rome, where “[s]pectacle in the amphitheater presents to the gaze scenes of extreme violence and bodily fragmentation” (41). However, Hardie proposes that Ovid’s use of violence is intended to underscore the idea of metamorphosis. After all, the poem itself “deals with extreme vicissitudes of the human body and with the accompanying emotions [. . . .] the theme of change includes not just supernatural transformation, but the alterations wrought on the body by violence” (41). Of course, not every victim of violence is transformed into a whole, living shape. There is some ambiguity. Pentheus, for example, may or may not be changed into a boar, and Itys is absorbed into his father’s living (later changed) body. Orpheus is an exception as, after his death, the poet’s head is unambiguously turned into stone. Although Ovid’s focus is “to tell of bodies changed/ To different forms,” several of the changes appear to be instances of social or psychological inversion which justifies a fear of Bacchus’ disruption of the city. It can be asked if the transformation theme affects the Maenads, or if they are the effectors of transformation. It appears that the women’s rejection of social norms, whether under the god’s influence or not, results in psychological change or, rather, disintegration. They become, figuratively, beasts.

In the Metamorphoses, the first incident of “proper” Maenadism is captured in the story of Bacchus and Pentheus. In this episode, Pentheus, is a martial king who represents an impious autarky, and whose rule Bacchus wishes to usurp. The wild women, Agave, Autonoe, and Ino, avenge not only Pentheus’ derision of their god, but his intrusion on Bacchus’ rites. The women, likely under the god’s influence, appear to have disintegrated psychologically, and strike him down on Bacchus’ behalf.

Curiously, the tale of Pentheus and Bacchus relates that Pentheus, the Theban king is Bacchus’ cousin; his mother, Agave, and his aunt, Autonoe, were Selene’s sisters. Another aunt, Ino, nursed the infant god before he was concealed with the nymphs of Nysa (3.312-14). Perhaps because of the familial tie, out of envy, or–most likely–sheer disgust at the open displays of emotion among Bacchus’ followers, Pentheus sets forth a pattern that will recur throughout the Metamorphoses, for he denies Bacchus’ divine lineage and authority.[3] Consequently, Pentheus’ end appears to be simply a matter of retribution for his rejection of Bacchus. However, his is a double sacrilege: unbelieving and uninitiated, he intrudes on the mysteries held outside of the city.

The arrival of the Bacchic festival, in which “the fields roared with reveling and outcry” prompts Pentheus to deride the celebrants as lunatics and his soldiers as effeminate: “my fine young peers, who used to carry/ Spears once, not wands, do you think it is decent of you/ To stick your heads through garlands, not in helmets?” (3.546-58).[4] Pentheus rallies his troops to defend Thebes from “a boy, unarmed,/ [who] Will take Thebes over [with]/Hair soaked with perfume, soft and flowery garlands,/ Purple and gold embroidery” (3.561-65). Pentheus is repulsed and angered that Bacchus’ sensuality and luxury are enough to undermine not only civic order, but military strength as well. The unmanning of Thebes with silks, flowers, and perfume is equivalent to dishonor, and exemplifies Pentheus’ concerns about an effeminate military. Disgusted, Pentheus decides to deal with “this empty godhead”–and defeat him–on his own.

While Pentheus doesn’t succeed in meeting the god (unless the musings that the Etrurian prisoner, Acoetes, is Bacchus in disguise), he does get to hear Acoetes’ story of Bacchus’ transforming impious sailors into dolphins. Still, he remains unmoved and charges “to the sacred mountain, Cithaeron” to pursue Bacchus. Unexpectedly, he falls under the god’s sway. In a revealing analogy, Ovid compares Pentheus’ “shaken, nervous, hot, excited” response as he nears the rites to the reactions of a war-horse nearing battle (3.706-8). In the battle between reason and emotion, order and upheaval, the Bacchanal’s hysteria challenges even Pentheus’ autarky.

When Pentheus enters a clearing he is “in full sight of all”; it is, essentially, an arena: “the tree-girt plain where Pentheus encounters the Bacchic orgies is explicitly configured as a site for spectatorship from every side [. . .] with Pentheus as a viewer who is to be a grisly spectacle” (Hinds 139). As an intruder who is not only uninitiated, but also impious in his doubt of Bacchus’ paternity, “his eyes profan[e]/ The holy orgies.” Pentheus’ spying on the rites triggers his violent end in a pseudo-amphitheater, and in an inversion of Roman entertainments. The soldier-king becomes part of the crowd’s festivities.

A note of ambiguity enters the tale at this point. The king’s mother, Agave, blinded by the rites or by the god’s influence, attacks him with her thyrsus. She cries to her sisters “A Wild boar/ Is loose here, and a big one. Strike him down, follow my lead!” (3.15-16). There are three possibilities here. Ovid hasn’t indicated that Pentheus has actually taken the shape of a boar, so this might well be a slight allusion to the practice of omophagia, in which Maenads allegedly partook of raw animal flesh, without committing the sisters to cannibal status (Maenads allegedly took their animal victims apart by hand). Agave’s identification of Pentheus as a boar, whether he has actually changed or not, may also point to the poem’s theme of physical transformation.[5] Pentheus, once soldier and king, has become more animal than those attending the Bacchanal. Additionally, Pentheus’ identification with a boar as he is torn to pieces echoes Actaeon’s own divine punishment. Actaeon, Autonoe’s son, spies upon a nude Diana, he was turned into a deer and torn apart by his own hunting dogs (3.137-261). Pentheus attempts to notify his aunt, Actaeon’s mother, that she’s committing the same type of atrocity on himself as Actaeon’s dogs, but his cry of “Remember/What happened to Actaeon!” gets no response, for Autonoe has fully forgotten herself: she “apparently knew nothing of Actaeon,/ Nor cared.” The sisters proceed to dismember the living man as he cries to his mother. The cousins, it seems, were doomed to suffer for their respective impieties.

When Agave finally rips Pentheus’ head from his shoulders, she declares it a “victory,” and her announcement prompts her “comrades,” be it her sisters or the surrounding Maenads, to tear the Pentheus’ remains to shreds. The god’s anger at Pentheus, and his influence on Agave, Autonoe, and Ino, effectively alerts Thebes to Bacchus’ authority. However, such examples as Pentheus don’t eliminate the god’s doubters; the theme reappears immediately when a group of devotees to Pallas Athena, Minyas’ daughters, “scorn Bacchus and his holiday” (4.390). However, their punishment is nowhere as severe as Pentheus’: the women are turned into bats rather than sacrificed.

Book Eleven, which tells of Orpheus’ death, is a second example of feminine revenge, as well as an attempt to undermine order. In this case, it is the civilizing influence of Orpheus’ art. Initially, Orpheus doesn’t appear to reinforce normative social order; he exists at stereotypical gender boundaries (he is passive rather than martial, for example), and he is emotionally “soft” rather than rigid, as both Pentheus and Tereus are.[6] However, Orpheus’ art effects a civilizing influence on man and beast which permits a reserved loss of self-control. Such polite emotional release contrasts with Bacchic lack of restraint (in this story especially). Despite the opposition, Bacchus favors Orpheus, and his murder isn’t performed at the god’s will. Nor is it vengeance for a criminal act. Orpheus’ death best exemplifies the extremity of “actual” Maenadian madness.

As background, Book 10 describes Eurydice’s “double death,” and centers on Orpheus’ travel to the Underworld after Eurydice dies of snakebite on their wedding day. The poet lyrically begs Hades for her release, and, at the god’s assent, Orpheus leads his bride toward the land of the living, but, “afraid she might falter, eager to see her,” Orpheus breaks Hades’ rule regarding Eurydice’s liberation and looks back at her. Eurydice fades back into the Underworld; ironically, the loving husband is the cause of his wife’s second death (10.53-64).

Orpheus forswears marriage and heterosexuality after this event. The women of Thrace, however, “[w]anted this poet for their own, and many/ Grieved over his rejection.” (10.81-3). Feminine sorrow takes a nasty turn into madness in Book 11. Unlike Pentheus’ death at the hands of his mother and aunts is spontaneous, Orpheus’, while not premeditated, is certainly prolonged. Notably, the terms used to describe the women become militant: the thyrsus or wand has become a “spear,” and the throng is called “an army.” the forces of chaos now battle the soothing spirit.

In the woods, the seated poet performs for “a ‘theater’ of birds, animals, and trees” (Hinds 139). The creatures’ rapt attention illustrates Orpheus’ ability to tame nature with “his music, his calm, [and] his civilized air” (Guthrie 43). Although Bacchus is fond of Orpheus, the poet represents all that is contrary to the Bacchanal. This, in addition to his rejection of the Thracians’ advances, settles Orpheus’ fate. “The mad Ciconian women,” dressed in animal skins, spy him from a hill, and begin their offense. Furious, one woman identifies the singer as “our despiser” and throws her spear at him (10.8). The beauty of Orpheus’ song deflects the spear, as well as other objects thrown by the Maenads. At this, “Mad fury reigned,” and the discordant noise of the Bacchic troop–produced by flutes, trumpets, drums, shrieks, and breast-beating, eventually drowns out the lyre’s music and the poet’s voice (10.15-18). Orpheus has lost his shield, and he is vulnerable to the women’s attack.

In what appears to be a reference to Actaeon, the Maenads surround Orpheus just as “[h]ounds circle the doomed stag” (11.27). They punish the poet by flinging “clods of earth,” stones, and tree branches. When these weapons fail to satisfy their bloodlust, the Maenads put farming (cultivating) tools to use. After farmers had “fled before the onrush of this army,” the women take up hoe, rake, and mattock,” they first slaughter oxen, which they tear “from limb to limb,” and then the poet. Despite Orpheus’ pleas for mercy (which “moved no one”), the Maenads proceed to dismember him and, “in cruelty or madness,” hurl his limbs about.

Bacchus, upon discovering the murder, punishes the Maenads by turning them into trees. This particular metamorphosis, apparently, has no source in classical literature: it’s the author’s invention (Wheeler 153). Ovid, it appears, thinks that even the god of disorder should stand only so much anarchy. Irrational to the point that they were out of the god’s control, these Maenads are the apotheosis of Bacchanalian savagery.

  1. S. Anderson reads Orpheus’ death by the Thracian women as the result of the poet’s “violent misogyny” (44) and marital impiety. Anderson considers Orpheus unfaithful to his wife, for, prior to his death he had “forgotten Eurydice and made the silliest of adjustments to grief by turning from women to boys” (46). Anderson’s reading appears to justify Orpheus’ death; however, although it appears that the Maenads’ sole motivation is to avenge their wounded pride, there is more to the story. In this case, it is the battle between civilization and wildness, or, normative rationality and excessive emotionality. Certainly, the sexual rejection plays a role, but Orpheus is the antithesis of the Maenad: he is culture, whereas she is anarchy. Although there appears to be some fluidity with gender roles (Orpheus is passive rather than hard, and the Maenads are described as warriors), the opposition between the two can be summed up best in the battle for sound. Orpheus’ song and the music of his lyre, which can move beast and vegetation alike, is drowned out and the poet defeated by the violent, abrasive, and throbbing noise that accompanies the Maenads. The elegant, ordered notes are displaced by discordant, insane howls.

The third instance of Maenad-like behavior occurs in the story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela; in this, the characters suffer as they reject social norms and succumb to irrationality. In contrast to the other two stories, the gods are absent from one of the more brutal tales in the Metamorphoses. Hardie suggests that the story’s cruelty is an echo of its thematic structure, for it “contributes to an exploration of tyrannical excess and male sadism, and the confusion of boundaries in a household undergoing violent meltdown” (42). It’s a story of human madness and bestial horrors that culminate in the Maenadian sacrifice of a young boy in an act of vengeance.

The horror is foreshadowed as the gods of marriage fail to bless Tereus and Procne’s union. Instead, it is overseen by the Furies, who “swung, or, maybe, brandished torches / Snatched from a funeral; the Furies lighted the bridal bed” while an owl hovered above the bedroom (6.432-44). Similar ill omens attend the birth of their son, Itys, which are ignored as the wedding’s omens were ignored. Yet while the small familial unit remains distinct in its triad of roles (father–mother–son), there is no threat to the family structure, hence no threat to its web of loyalties. Once the married father Tereus re-enters Athens and he encounters Philomela, his instantaneous and irrational passions unweave that pattern of relationships and forces all players into previously unassumed roles.

That his crimes are motivated by human lusts rather than divine intervention is reinforced by Ovid’s focus “on Tereus’ natural propensity for such a passion and on his desire to satisfy his lust” (Pfeffer 11). Tereus’ proclivity to passion is multiplied as his is a characteristically Thracian

“double fire” (Ovid 6.460-2). As a result, he is blind to various loyalties as he plots to gain the girl any way that he can (6.463-67). Doing so, however, means challenging both familial and political alliances.

Not only is Tereus willing to forsake familial vows, which encompass his roles as husband, brother, and son through his alliance with Pandion, but he also considers surrendering his people and his own son’s legacy to slake physical desire. Tereus’ passion debases him to bestiality, but he’s capable of masking this with smooth oratory. He convinces Pandion to release his daughter by promising to be as a father to her (6.499-503). At this point, Tereus has lost all sense of honor and duty as he struggles with self-control; he’s surrendered the stabilizing influence of family, and he’s willing to negate alliances to satiate mere lust: he becomes “Tereus the savage” (6.515).

Moreover, family roles have been conflated and loyalties twisted; not only is Tereus “father” in his role as king, but Pandion, in handing Philomela over to Tereus’ care, also grants him paternal responsibility. Tereus abandons both roles and complicates all others’ positions with the rape of Philomela. She who was Tereus’ sister becomes, in her own view, “a second-class wife” or concubine (6.543). The raped Philomela not only threatens Procne’s marital role as an unwilling usurper, but, because she holds herself responsible for Tereus’ actions, feels that she has betrayed her sister. Philomela responds by shaming Tereus in reminding him of his broken vows:

Were my father’s orders

Nothing to you, his tears, my sister’s love,

My own virginity, the bonds of marriage? (6.539-41

Tereus’ has effectively shattered his familial arrangements; the rape signifies a “transgression of all bonds, oaths, and unstated but firmly believed rules [and] initiates a radical loss of identity, a terrible confusion of roles [. . . .]” (Klindiest np). Philomela, aware of this, declares that she would rather have been murdered than used to break vows; her subsequent threat to announce his betrayals–prompts Tereus to cut out her tongue.[7] Her suffering enflames Tereus, and he rapes her again; Tereus follows this by shutting her up in a woodland hut. In the loss of voice, the imprisonment, and the confusion of roles, Philomela has lost not only agency, but identity as well.

Philomela, body violated and voice stolen, recedes into the woods; the transition between Tereus’ and Procne’s sections of the story is a brief account of her isolation. During her year in captivity, Philomela weaves her story and has it delivered to Procne. The tapestry’s arrival effectively furthers the conflation of identities and breakdown of structure, for in sending her work to Procne, Philomela entrusts Procne with agency to act on her behalf.

The tapestry’s reception provides a feminine counterpoint to Tereus’ irrational passion. Procne, however, is driven by fury: “Grief choked her utterance,/ Passion her sense of outrage. There was no room/ For tears, but for confusion only, and vengeance” (6.583-85 ). There’s no indication that Procne plans revenge against Tereus; at this point she is blinded in her passion, and incapable of reason–an echo of Tereus’ response to Philomela. The timing of her discovery is significant, for it merges with the “festival for Bacchus,” and her personal frenzy is juxtaposed against that of the god’s celebrants.

As noted above, Maenads are associated with the negation of marriage and the destruction of the home (Seaford 121).[8] Wives desert their families to literally abandon themselves in the woods, “where they resist men [though perhaps not satyrs], become like animals, and perform sacrifice” (122). The Bacchanal offers resistance to gender norms. Procne becomes Maenadian as, with the other Thracian women, she is “driven/ By madness, terrible in rage and anger [. . . .]” (6.   ). However, in donning “the dress of frenzy, trailing vines for head-dress, deer-skin/ Down the left side, and a spear over the shoulder” the queen is disguising herself as Bacchus’ warrior (6.   ). Just as Tereus becomes savage by surrendering to violent lust, so does Procne in anger.

This ritualized rejection of family, coupled with the news of Tereus’ own negation of his marriage, perhaps provides the Grecian Procne with a “double fire” of her own. Her participation in the ceremony certainly contextualizes and reinforces the theme of family betrayal; Procne’s loyalty to Tereus is discarded as she rescues her sister in Bacchus’ name. Yet this release does not accompany an emotional one: Procne, “Burning, could not restrain her wraith” (6.    ), and imagines what she can do to avenge Philomela, as well as herself. However, when Procne begins to plan revenge, a note of ambiguity enters the story.

Tellingly, when she encounters and embraces Itys, Procne becomes hesitant–she seems to leave her frenzy behind. Initially, the association of Procne’s rage and Bacchic frenzy appears to provoke–if not justify–Procne’s ensuing crime, for her madness is mixed with that of the Thracian women. However, Maenadian infanticide is often spontaneous, as it occurs in the throes of the festival.[9] When a Maenad has the self-awareness to anticipate her actions, she is clearly no longer under the god’s spell. Procne’s self-awareness is evident when, as she’s about to slaughter Itys, she suddenly pulls back and reconsiders her intentions. She momentarily steps back and considers her duties as wife, mother, and sister. Procne, like the Maenad, rejects the first two, but she must, ironically, reason herself back into a rage by comparing Itys with Philomela; she also considers whether disgracing Tereus is a greater crime than maintaining devotion to him (6.635-37). This reflection–the weighing of injustices and impieties–also shows how Procne has shed her Maenadian identity; as she murders her son, Procne is resolute and determined whereas she was previously “confused.”

Tereus’ rage when he has finished the “ritual meal” (reminiscent of omophagia), and Philomela has presented him with Itys’ head, is obviously triggered by the gruesome nature of the sisters’ crime. Procne has robbed Tereus not only of a son, but also of a legacy. Moreover, he’s been emasculated as well as inversely maternalized; Ovid “mentions no less than three times [. . .] that Tereus becomes the living tomb of his son (6.651, 655)” (Galinsky 131). Rather than life, Tereus carries death in his belly. He calls on the Furies, Yet instead of granting his revenge, he and the sisters are turned into birds forever to chase and be chased[10]: “Tereus will never catch the sisters, but neither will the women ever cease their flight. Distance may neither collapse nor expand. In such stasis, both order and conflict are preserved, but there is no hope of change“ (Klindiest np). Their collective crimes are so barbaric that there is no place on either Earth or Hades in which the situation can be tolerated or resolved. Ultimately, there can be no ending but the transformations, and the resulting unending cycle of vengeance.

Bacchae are typically associated with the destruction of order, but it can be argued that Tereus, driven by lust, is ultimately responsible for the implosion of family (and, subsequently, state) unity. His irrational desire for Philomela overwhelms all considerations and duties. Consequently, he not only shatters bonds with his father-in-law and his wife, but he is also willing to risk betraying his people. Procne matches Tereus’ crime, for not only does she betray her husband by releasing her sister, but she rejects her own maternity in sacrificing Itys and feeding him to Tereus–who bears the child‘s remains in his belly. Brutal as Procne‘s actions are, it was Tereus’ unrestrained, all-conquering lust that initiated the family’s destruction. Procne and Philomela made certain that destruction by guaranteeing that Tereus’ line comes to an end, but the metamorphoses, guarantees the three figures’ eternal chase. A blood feud, it finds no end and anticipates devastation rather than peace.

Although Bacchic revelry provided Graeco-Roman women with an opportunity for release from social strictures, literary uses of the Bacchae indicate something more significant for the age of autarky: the battle between reason and emotion, duty and desire. The Metamorphoses’ Maenads indicate an upheaval of the normative military, political, and familial cultural order. Although such irruptions were usually led by Bacchus and enjoyed by the general populace, the Maenads represent the mysterious tipping point where ecstasy becomes madness, and intemperate emotion results in destruction.

In the tales of Pentheus and Orpheus, Bacchic influence results in psychological, rather than bodily, fragmentation. Pentheus’ mother’s and aunt’s action certainly illustrates the dangers of ignoring the god, but their crime also appears to illustrate two items: the ego’s destruction during the Bacchanal, and the violent opposition civilized culture. Agave, Autonoe, and Ino are so internally divided that they recognize neither Pentheus nor Actaeon’s name, and they sacrifice a man who is both kin and king. Hysteria and rebellion also underlie the story of Orpheus’ death. The maenads, who enter the scene as a wandering throng, show no signs of sanity; rather, they descend further into frenzy as they spy, attack, and dismember the cultured poet. Their act is so abhorrent that even Bacchus is disturbed, and he is forced to punish his followers, his army.

Madness is not a single-sex attribute, and neither is social destruction provoked solely by women. Tereus, mad with lust, initiates the cycle of violence that ends in his son’s death and the static state of his eternal pursuit of Procne and Philomela. In return, the sisters’ response to Tereus’ tyranny and cruelty obliterates the family and fractures the country. Even if it’s transmitted through divine influence, irrational rage or desire destroys individuals and, ultimately, the state. This is taken to an extreme in stories of Maenadian infanticide and androcide, and this what Ovid shows in the Metamorphoses. No recollection about the Maenads approaches peace, or even plain irritability. There is only non-ceasing personal, social, and political disintegration. Rooted in chaos, noise, excess, and rebellion against the normative social order, the Maenads are the ultimate anarchists.


[1]  The “unknown celebratio[n]” is, of course, a mystery.

[2]  There is a significant amount of scholarly dispute over the historical accuracy of Bacchic omophagia. For example, Albert Heinrichs and Dirk Obbink dispute theories that raw flesh was consumed at ritual (Obbink 65-78). On the other hand, Robert Turcan accepts its existence (286), and Martin P. Nilsson maintains that it was an archaic practice, but that documents testify to its occurrence (7).

[3]  According to Euripides’ Bacchae, the Thracian Bacchanal was instituted by Bacchus as an act of revenge against his mother’s sister who, jealously, denied Semele’s union with Zeus and, consequently, Bacchus’ divine heritage. (Kraemer 11). Ovid’s account differs in that Pentheus, rather than his mother, is critical of the god’s paternity

[4]  Consul Albinus questioned the Bacchanal’s effect on soldiers’ martial ability: “Men who have wallowed in their own and in others’ debauchery–are they to fight with sword for the decency of your wives and children? It would not be quite so bad that their shameful passion made them effeminate (that would largely be a question of their own disgrace), if only they had kept their hands from crimes against others [. . . .]” (Livy qtd. in Evans 116).,

[5]  In some traditions, Agave does indeed view Pentheus as an animal, and she doesn’t realize it is her own son she destroys (Seaford 123).

[6]   Alison Sharrock details the expectations and fluidity of Roman gender and sexual roles in The Cambridge Companion to Ovid.

[7]   Philomela’s threat includes a promise that “if you shut me here, I will move the very woods and rocks to pity” (6.570-71). This note corresponds with Orphic myth, and partially supports theories that Philomela, with her weaving, is a feminine counterpoint to Orpheus. The respective myths present a “paradigm of poetic knowledge in our civilization [. . . .]” that asserts the primacy of pain to the artist’s skill (Grossman 229-30).

[8]     According to Euripides’ Bacchae, the Thracian Bacchanal was instituted by Bacchus as an act of revenge against his mother’s sister who, jealously, denied Semele’s union with Zeus and, consequently, Bacchus’ divine heritage. (Kraemer 11). Ovid’s account differs in that Pentheus, rather than his mother, is critical of the god’s paternity

[9]    Richard Seaford notes that an intentional child-murder falls outside of Maenadian frenzy. Medea, for example, was no Maenad “because she, [like Procne]  horrifically, means to kill her own children” (132).

[10]    Ovid leaves the designation vague, but Philomela has become associated with the nightingale and Procne with the swallow; originally, these were reversed . This is one example of how the myth has evolved over time (Klindiest np). Tereus becomes the hoopoe, a flamboyant bird, which is notorious for its “malodorous nest.” The obvious association betweent he two is that both Tereus and the hoopoe foul their own home.


Works Cited

Anderson, W. S. “The Orpheus of Virgil and Ovid: flebile nescio quid.” Orpheus: The Metamorphoses of a Myth. Ed. John Warden. Toront: U of Toronto P, 1982.

Evans, Arthur. The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysos. NY:   St. Martins, 1988. .

Galinsky, G. Karl. Ovid’s Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects.     Berkeley: U of California P, 1975.

Hardie, Philip. “Ovid and Imerial Literature.” The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Ed. Philip Hardie. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 34-45.

Hinds, Stephen. “Landscape and the Aesthetics of Place.” The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Ed. Philip Hardie. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 122-149.

Jameson, Michael. “The Asexuality of Dionysus.” Masks of Dionysus. Eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A Faraone. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. 44-64.

Kraemer, Ross S., Ed. Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics: A Sourcebok on Women‘s Religions in the Greco-Roman World. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.

Nilsson, Martin P. The Dionysiac Mysteris of the Hellenistic and Roman Age. NY: Arno, 1975.

Obbink, Dirk. “Sacrifice and Cultural Formation.” Masks of Dionysus. Eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A Faraone. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. 65-86.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955.

Schlesier, Renate. “Mixtures as Masks: Maenads as Tragic Models.” Masks of Dionysus. Eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A Faraone. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. 89-114.

Sharrock, Alison. “Gender and Sexuality.” The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Ed. Philip Hardie. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 95-107.

Turcan, Robert. The Cults of the Roman Empire. Trans. Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Wheeler, Stephen M. A Discourse of Wonders: Audience and Performance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1999.




Copyright Jacqueline Pollard (2005)

%d bloggers like this: