Bacchae was the final work—and thought by many to be the greatest—of the Athenian playwright Euripides, who Aristotle called “the most tragic of the poets.” First performed in Athens in 405 BC, a year after Euripides’ death, the play tells the story of the introduction of the worship of the god Dionysus—also referred to as Bromius and Iacchus—from Asia into Greece. But as Dionysus arrives in the Greek city of Thebes, he finds that the populace, led by its king, Pentheus, refuses to acknowledge his divinity. Dionysus sets out to punish the unfaithful, and as Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in the October 22, 2009 issue of the Review, put it, “stings the female population of Thebes with daemonic frenzy, sending them to the mountains outside of the city where they celebrate his rites at last.” In this passage, a messenger describes to Pentheus the sights he has seen on Mount Cithaeron, where the Theban women—now Bacchants, Dionysus’ female adherents—have fled. Among them are Pentheus’ mother Agave, and her sisters Autonoe and Ino.
The sun had just risen and the earth was warming up
as we drove our herds
along the ridge to the high meadow,
when I saw three bands of women:
one led by Autonoe,
one by your mother, Agave, and one by Ino.
They lay exhausted,
some resting on fir branches,
others sleeping among oak leaves.
They were modest and composed, not drunk
with wine as you say,
not dancing wildly to pipe music,
or chasing Aphrodite in some ecstasy.
But then your mother must have heard the lowing
of our cattle and, springing to her feet, let out a cry
to stir the rest from their sleep.
And one by one they woke,
rubbing their eyes like children,
and rose—tall and straight.
What a sight it was:
old and young, some still unmarried.
What a sight.
First they stretched back to loosen their hair
and let it fall over their shoulders,
and those whose fawn-skin straps had slipped in sleep,
secured them again with snakes
that licked at their cheeks.
New mothers, who had left their babies
behind at home, drew gazelles and wolf cubs
to their swollen breasts
and let them feed.
They decked themselves
with crowns of ivy, oak, and bryony.
One woman struck her thyrsus on a rock
and a spring of water shot out, bubbling.
Another drove her fennel wand into the ground
and the god released a jet of wine.
Those who wanted milk
simply tapped the earth
with their fingers and a fountain started.
Pure honey spurted and streamed
from the tips of their wands.
If you had been there, sire,
you would have gone down on your knees and prayed
to the very god you deny.
We herdsmen gathered in groups, talking and arguing
about these extraordinary things we’d seen.
Then a blow-in from the city,
who clearly had a way with words, stood up and said:
“You who live on the mountain pastures,
what say we earn ourselves the gratitude of the king
and hunt down Agave, Pentheus’s mother,
and drag her from the dance?”
It seemed a good idea,
so we lay in ambush, camouflaged with leaves.
At the appointed time, the women came,
waving their wands for the start of the ritual,
calling on Bromius, Iacchus, son of Zeus,
till the whole mountain and its creatures
seemed as possessed as they were.
And then the women ran, and the world ran with them.
As it happened, Agave came
leaping toward my hiding place,
and as I stood to grab her she let out a shout:
“Hounds that hunt with me, we are hunted now!
Follow me! Follow me,
and use your wands as weapons against these men!”
They would have torn us to pieces, those Bacchae.
Instead, they turned—bare-handed—
on our herd of grazing cattle.
A single woman pulled a mewling calf in two,
while others clawed apart a full-grown heifer.
There were spread ribs and broken hooves
and pieces of flesh hung
dripping from the trees.
Great bulls, their power and fury tightening in their horns,
lowered their heads to charge
but were wrestled to the ground
by countless female hands and flayed alive—
faster, sire, than a blink of your royal eyes.
Then they rose like birds
and swept over the plain that stretched below,
cornfields watered by the river of Asopus.
They swooped on Hysiae and Erythrae
on the foothills of Cithaeron, scattering everything,
turning it upside down. They snatched children
from their homes, and pillaged houses.
Everything they threw on their backs stayed there:
nothing, not even bronze or iron, fell to the earth.
Flames danced in their hair but did not burn them.
The furious villagers took up their weapons in defense
and, sire, what happened next was dreadful to see.
The men’s spears of pointed metal drew no blood,
while the flung wands of the women ripped open flesh,
and the men turned and ran.
Women routing men! Some god was here with them.
The Bacchae then swung round and back
to where they’d started, to the green woods,
to the springs the god had made for them,
and they washed their hands of the thick blood,
while the snakes licked clean their spattered cheeks.
Whoever this god may be, sire,
I would welcome him to Thebes.
He is great in many ways—not least, I hear say,
for his gift of wine to mortal men.
Wine, which puts an end to sorrow and to pain.
And if there is no wine, there is no Aphrodite,
and without her no pleasure left at all.
This excerpt is drawn from Robin Robertson’s translation of Bacchae, to be published by Ecco on September 2.