The ancient women of Bacchus — the maenads, or bacchants — are one of the most prolific groups in surviving religious imagery from antiquity. Artists and sculptors throughout the ages have made them their subjects. These wild women who engaged in uninhibited frenzy were considered a mystery even in the ancient world. For the ancients, the maenads represented the dangers of women left unchaperoned by male authority. Yet for many women, the worship of Bacchus allowed them to experience what life could be like as an unfettered maenad. This article will explore the myths and realities of the maenads of Bacchus.
Maenad Vs Bacchant
Maenads or mainades were women devoted to the god Bacchus (Dionysus, in Greek mythology). Their name originally meant “raving ones,” as they were believed to be possessed by the god. While also under the god’s influence, these women possessed supernatural abilities and strength.
Were the maenads and the bacchants the same? Modern scholars most commonly agree that these terms were synonymous. The maenads belonged to Greek religion, while the bacchants were Roman — deriving their name from their god, Bacchus. Another name ascribed to these Bacchic women was the Bassarids; also the title of a lost Aeschylean play. This name was derived from Bacchus’ penchant for wearing a fox or bassarisk pelt.
The maenads of Bacchus could be either voluntary devotees of the god, or forced participants. On occasions where the god introduced his rites to a new city and was rejected, he would frequently punish that city by inciting a frenzy amongst the women and turning them into maenads. This is how the god managed to accumulate a large retinue of female followers. Examples of women who became maenads in this way include the Minyades and the daughters of Proetus.
Priestesses of Bacchus
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Contemporaries of the practice of maenadism thought that it originated from ancient Thebes, the mythological birthplace of Bacchus. There, the maenads formed part of the god’s sacred retinue of attendants, called the thiasos. Bacchic and Dionysiac mythology held that women joined this thiasos from all corners of Greece.
In some myths, maenads were characterised as ‘madwomen’ who were nurses of the infant Bacchus. According to related legends, these women were pursued by Lycurgus, a king opposed to Dionysiac religion. In earlier ancient sources, the maenads were indeed believed to be possessed by the spirit of Bacchus. In later antiquity however, maenads and bacchants were simply seen as priestesses of the god of wine.
Depictions of Bacchus’ Maenads
The Maenads’ mode of dress made them easily identifiable. Their Bacchic garb included a fawnskin and/or a panther cloak, and these women were often depicted barefoot — signifying the wildness of both the women and their god. In addition, maenads wore garlands of ivy or vines on their heads. Their hair was let loose and their appearance was described as generally unkempt.
The most recognizable feature of the maenads’ adornment was the thyrsus. This was a staff of fennel, with a pinecone fastened to the top. The thyrsus was also carried by the god himself as symbolic of his status as a fertility god.
The maenads were a favored subject for ancient potters and painters, particularly on wine-bearing vessels such as oinochoe. Scenes of maenads often also incorporated other characters from the Bacchic retinue, like satyrs. Satyrs pursuing maenads was a popular theme portrayed on ancient vases. These Bacchic-themed vessels were mostly used in social events such as symposia, social gatherings in which the god was honored through the consumption of wine and other earthly delights.
The Maenads of Mythology
Bacchus was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Dionysus, and their mythologies were very often identical. The popular understanding of the maenads in both Greek and Roman mythology were thus also identical. The most extensive ancient description can be found in Euripides’ play entitled The Bacchae. The play produced in 405 BCE details the return of the god Dionysus to his birthplace, Thebes.
The god arrived with a retinue of maenads from the surrounding area, and planned to introduce the Bacchic rites to the Thebans. The central narrative tension is created by the Theban king, Pentheus, who refused to accept the god into the city. In anger, the god set a frenzy upon the Theban women, who all left their homes in the city, and became maenads in the mountains. Large parts of the play provide descriptions of the maenads and their actions in the wilderness.
Euripides’ Wild Women
In one of these descriptions (lines 660-774), a messenger describes to Pentheus what the Theban women were doing in the mountains. He reported witnessing three dancing bands, or thiasoi, of women, one of which was led by Pentheus’ mother, Autonoe. He described how the women lounged “with bodies relaxed.” Some were “leaning against the foliage of the silver fir” while others were “among the oak leaves with their heads on the ground, purposelessly.” However, when the women were disturbed by the lowing of cattle, they leapt up and readied themselves for their revelries.
They loosened their hair, and tucked in their fawn-skin robes or girdled them with serpents. They also donned their Bacchic headgear — garlands of ivy, oak, and flowering smilax. One maenad had struck the ground with her thyrsus and a spring of wine burst forth, while others dug into the earth and milk flowed from the ground. Honey dripped from the ivy-covered thrysoi and nourished the women.
The messenger witnessed the maenads as they began to move, commencing their revelries, and called upon the god in one voice. Wild animals and even the mountain itself seemed to join in the Bacchic worship. But when the messenger was discovered by the maenads, the women took off after him in a frenzied pursuit, with the intent of tearing the man apart. In their ecstatic state, the women came upon a herd of grazing cattle. Unarmed, they ripped the animals apart with their bare hands.
These women were constantly under the god’s influence and possession when these events took place. Their strength in tearing animals apart emphasizes the superhuman abilities with which the god was able to imbue them. The messenger also told Pentheus that, in their frenzy, the women had run into a village. There, they kidnapped children and infants. He states that whatever the maenads put on their shoulders remained there, and did not fall to the ground. The women carried fire in their hair, but they did not burn.
When the villagers took up arms against the maenads, nothing seemed to perturb them nor harm them, and instead the women carried on. The maenads then sent forth their thrysoi which wounded the villagers and hindered their attacks. After this, the maenads returned to their spring, washed the blood from their bodies, and returned to their leisurely activities.
Rites and Rituals of The Maenad
The maenads conducted the ritual rending-apart of a sacrificial victim, known as the sparagmos rite, in various instances in their mythology. Some notable figures who have been ripped apart in this fashion by the attendants of Bacchus are Pentheus and Orpheus. The myth of Orpheus’ pursuit and dismemberment by the maenads was a prominent subject in ancient art, and still enjoys exploration in modernity.
The maenads’ murder of Orpheus came after he chose to worship Apollo rather than Bacchus. As punishment, a Thracian thiasos of maenads pursued and dismembered him. According to legend, Orpheus’ head — although ripped from his body — continued to sing, and together with his lyre, floated to Lesbos. There, the Oracle of Orpheus was established, and the rest of his limbs were gathered and buried by the Muses.
The Maenads of The Bacchanalia
Other cult practices of the maenads included ecstatic dancing and Bacchic revelry. The wild energy of these rituals was imbued in them by the god, who caused his worshippers to experience frenzy and mania. This ecstatic worship was accompanied by a cacophony of music and the wild yelling by the participants. According to scholars, the goal of this ritual was to induce a frenzied state in which the worshipper could become closer to Bacchus. This style of worship was observed in festivals such as the Bacchanalia of the Romans.
According to the Roman author Livy, the Bacchanalia festival was only open to women and lasted for three days. The festival was held in strict privacy and attendees were bound to secrecy. Scholars believe that the Bacchanalia served two types of religious purpose. The first was as a public celebration and a platform for dramatic plays, much like the City Dionysia. The second purpose was that of release and revelry through frenzied ritual.
However, in 186 CE, the Roman Senate became suspicious of the Bacchanalia festival, and believed the attendees were planning a revolt. Legislation was introduced which brought the Bacchanalia under the control of the Senate. This led to a complete restructuring of the cult. Henceforth cult members had to seek Senate permission to practice any Bacchanalian rites.
During antiquity, the maenads were not merely the priestesses of the god of wine. The women who took part in Bacchic revelries and secretive festivals were considered a danger to the order of the city, and when possessed, exhibited superhuman abilities. As most of their rituals took place in the wilderness, without male supervision, politicians and husbands were powerless to control them. Their frightening reputation and secrecy lent credibility to universal fears of the unknown. The maenads of ancient Greco-Roman mythology acted as vehicles for the wrath of Dionysus/Bacchus, who was able to wreak vengeance on those who denied his rites.