Whoosh! Issue 14 -
November 1997


By Nicholas Nayko
Copyright © 1997 held by author
2283 words

BACCHAE (02-12)
     Synopsis Of The Bacchae (05-06)
     "The Bacchae" (07-12)
ORPHEUS (17-22)
DRYADS (23-24)

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun vs. Euripides' The Bacchae


[01] The Xena: Warrior Princess episode GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (#28) introduced us to the Bacchae, the followers of the god, Bacchus. Just how true to Greek mythology were these and other characters portrayed?


Party animal

Bacchae, Greek style.

[02] The Bacchae, or women followers of the god Dionysus (Greek), or Bacchus (Roman), were also referred to as Maenads (mad women), Bacchants or Thyiades (Inspired). These women fell under the spell of Dionysus and became frenzied and performed wild Bacchic rites, sometimes referred to as orgia. The stories about them were manifold. They danced ecstatically around, dressed in fawn skins, with the hems dappled with fleecy tuffs of silvery goat's hair. They held a fennel stick or a Thyrsus, which was a staff tipped with a pine cone with ivy and vine branches twined around it. They either had a snake wound around their head or their bodies in honor of when Zeus brought forth the new formed god, Dionysus, who was wreathed with the coils of serpents; or, they wore a wreath of ivy or flowering smilax, a type of oak. The Bacchae reputedly gamboled with wild animals like gazelles and wolves. It was rumored they would sometimes let the animals suckle their breasts. They made music with flutes and timbrels. They could strike a rock with a Thyrsus and make water spring from it, strike a fennel stick on the ground and have a fountain of wine shoot up, or scrape the earth with their fingers and get milk. When disturbed they could tear apart cattle limb from limb, and consume the raw meat. They pillaged homes at random, not dropping any spoils. They carried fire and it did not burn them. When attacked by pointed spears, they were unhurt. They repulsed their attackers by throwing their Thyrsi, sticks and stones.

[03] These characteristics are from Euripides' tragedy, The Bacchae, which described the revelry, frenzy and delusionary power Dionysus had over his followers and others.

[04] Before considering the plot of Euripides' play, the relationship between Dionysus, Pentheus and Agave should be explained. Dionysus was the offspring of a union between Zeus and a mortal woman named Semele, daughter of Cadmus, the founder and first king of Thebes. Hera was jealous and sent a thunderbolt destroying Semele. Dionysus escaped and Zeus hid the child by sewing him inside his thigh. Later he released Dionysus who was reared by nymphs on Mount Nysa. Cadmus' grandson, Pentheus, was the king in this play. Agave, the mother of Pentheus, was a daughter of Cadmus and a sister of Semele, the mother of Dionysus.

Synopsis of The Bacchae

[05] The Bacchae begins with Dionysus returning to Greece after establishing his cult in Asia. He comes to Thebes, his birthplace, in the form of a handsome young man at the head of a band of Maenads. The new king, Pentheus, has no respect for this new god and forbids the practice of the Bacchite rites. Dionysus drives all the women of Thebes, including the king's mother and her sisters, to take to the slopes of Mount Cithaeron to revel in a Bacchite frenzy. Pentheus imprisons the young man but the young man miraculously escapes. A herdsman tells Pentheus what he and his friends saw of the Bacchae's frenzy. This discription is what was used in the first paragraph of this section.

[06] The prisoner returns to the king and persuades him to go disguised as a woman to the mountain slopes to spy on the Bacchae. From a tree top he observes the Bacchae, however, they see him and rip the tree from the ground with their bare hands. Pentheus' mother, Agave, tears him apart, thinking he is a mountain lion. The other Bacchae strip the flesh from the bone, make a ball of it, and play with it. Agave later wanders into Thebes with the head of Pentheus, her son, on top of her Thyrsus, under Dionysus' inspired delusion that it is a mountain lion's head. After she comes to her senses and realizes what she has done, she goes into exile, abandoning the Dionysian cult.

"The Bacchae"

And you thought her cheekbones were

Xena as Bacchae.

[07] The play, The Bacchae, was based on historical reports of women becoming frenzied and performing Bacchite revelry and related violence at Thebes, Argos, Orchomenes and in Athens. The Dionysian cult originated in Asia (perhaps India) and spread from northern Greece via Macedonia down to Athens starting in the seventh century B.C. By the middle of the sixth century B.C., knowledge of the social phenomena had pretty well assimilated into Greek culture.

[08] The religion differed from the other Greek teachings in that this cult had no temples based on order and structure. It took its worshippers out of the dusty, crowded cities and towns and resettled them into the wilds and beauty of clean, untrodden nature.

[09] The Bacchae depicted in GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (#28) differ greatly from the Bacchae of ancient Greek mythology. The GIRLS Bacchae are based on the vampire myth, a product of the Slavic regions and the Balkans, first developing in the sixteenth century A.D. The only similarities are they are in a trance, owe allegiance to Bacchus, and tear victims limb from limb (although that is when they are seeking blood, as Gabrielle says when relating stories about Bacchae in the beginning). The white-skinned, yellow-eyed, black-clothed, fanged, flying Bacchae would look strange to an ancient Greek. The Greek Bacchae did not seek blood or bite on the neck. These are characteristics of vampires, as well as the ability to take on many forms, such as wolves. In Homer's THE ODYSSEY, there are blood-consuming creatures, but they are not vampires. They are more akin to blood-seeking ghosts. [10] In GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (#28), the village has a festival to ward off the Bacchae. In ancient Greece, however, there were festivals held to honor Dionysus. Dancing and partying were characteristic of Bacchae rites, but attracting rather than warding off followers. Each spring, a Dionysia festival was held in Athens at the foot of the Acropolis, where a statue of Dionysus stood. The priest of the Dionysian cult from the village of Eleutherae in Attica, which claimed to be the birthplace of Dionysus, hosted a group of players who would perform dramas. The highest form of these came to be called Tragodoi, meaning "goat singers" in Greek, from Dionysus association with goats. This was the forerunner of modern theater.

[11] Even in the second century A.D., Plutarch wrote of a pilgrimage made every two years by well-to-do Athenian women and girls. They walked barefoot to Delphi, the sacred site of Apollo, and met Delphic women and girls to scale Mount Parnassus and perform a dancing festival.

Would you like them to cater your next

Bacchae making an offering to Dionysus.

[12] The picture above shows offerings being made before an image of Dionysus, represented by a bearded mask and garments hung on a pole or tree stump. Two priestesses make an offering while two other participants hold up the Thyrus and dance in ecstacy.


Drat!  Caught my skirt on a hook *again*!

Dionysus, with trademark laurel wreath, staff, and drinking horn.

[13] Dionysus was the last god to enter Mount Olympus and was the only god conceived from a mortal (his mother Semele). He was the god of wine. Since wine has a dual nature -- it can make one happy and content, but, it can also make people drunk and violent -- so did Dionysus have a dual personality. His worship was more like a cult than the orderly, structured worship of the other Greek gods.

[14] Being a late comer, he had to attract converts. GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (#28) depicts him as a monster with red skin, horns, long fingernails and fangs. Greek depictions of Dionysus show him as a normal human figure. The horns could be an allusion to the practice of Dionysus to cloud the thinking of some people and see things differently than they really are. In The Bacchae, Pentheus sees Dionysus' spokesperson as a talking bull, and the chorus describes the infant Dionysus as "bull-horned god". The bull was a revered animal to ancient Mediterranean people, manifesting eventually into the bull jumpers of Crete and the legend of the Minotaur.

[15] Dionysus' attendants are the Bacchae as well as Satyrs -- part man, part goat creatures. Satyrs are not destructive like the Bacchae, they are more interested in revelry. [16] Dionysus died and was resurrected each year. He died, like the vine, with the coming of cold weather. His deaths were violent. In some stories he was torn to pieces by Titans and in other versions by Hera's orders. But he was always brought back to life in the spring, celebrated by the Dionysus festival with the tragedy performances. This resurrection must have inspired many followers -- more than being an immortal vampire like in GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (#28).


[17] Orpheus was a gifted minstrel who could play such enchanting music that animals, trees and stones followed him and rivers stopped flowing to listen. He was the son of the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope, and, depending on which version you believe, Apollo or Oeagnus, a Thracian king.

[18] In GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (#28) he was an enemy of Dionysus, having fought him before with Xena. Orpheus states Bacchus had cut his head from his body so he could not play his music which would put the Bacchae to sleep. This differs from Greek mythology in that Orpheus was a devotee of Dionysus, at least originally.

[19] In the earliest versions of his quest to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, Orpheus succeeded as a testament to the power of his lord Dionysus. Eurydice had been killed shortly after her wedding to Orpheus when she was chased by a lustful shepherd named Aristaeus. A snake in the grass bit Eurydice and she died. The gods punished Aristaeus, who was a semi-deity who raised bees, by killing his bees. Orpheus went to Tartarus to plead with the deities of the Underworld to bring her back to life. They agreed as long as Orpheus did not look back at her until they reach the upper world. The original version had Orpheus succeeding, but the story, over time, changed. In later versions established by Virgil and Ovid, Orpheus was unsure if Eurydice was still following him and glanced back only to watch her return to Tartarus.

[20] There are several variants to the details of Orpheus' fate after losing Eurydice. In one, he went away to preach the mysteries of Dionysus and his own cult with a band of Thracian women. Orpheus had his own cult which was associated with the philosopher, Pythageras, the same individual with the famous mathematical equation of a2 + b2 = c2. Whether these women were full pledged Maenads or whether Dionysus put a spell over them is debatable, but they threw spears and stones at Orpheus. He was able to stop them with his music until the women's screaming drowned it out and they could kill him. There also are versions these women were jealous because Orpheus did not respond to their advances or because he was a foreigner. He was Greek and they were Thracian.

[21] Aeschylus' play BASSARIDS relates that Orpheus likes the calm, soothing +s of the Grecian lyre instead of the harsh Phrygian flutes and timbrels used by Bacchus in his frenzied rites. Orpheus shuns Bacchus and instead begins to worship Apollo. Each morning he is out on Mount Panglaion to watch Apollo bring up the sun and greet him.

[22] Bacchus resents this and sends out the Bassarids, a troop of Maenads, to tear Orpheus to pieces. The legends say Orpheus' head and lyre floated down the river Hebrus making sorrowful music, out to sea, and eventually landing on the shore of the island of Lesbos. There, the Muses buried it on the island at a tomb, made the Lesbians adept at music, placed the lyre in the sky as a constellation, and collected the body and limbs and buried them in Pieria, the region next to Mount Olympus, the homeland of the Muses. In Hades, Orpheus and Eurydice sing together.


The ultimate fat-free diet result

Dryads, XENA-style.

[23] The Dryads in GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (#28), as Xena relates, "are sworn enemies of Bacchus. A Dryad bone is the ony thing which can kill Bacchus" (with the later given caveat: if used by a Bacchae). The Dryad bone is used in the episode as a wooden stake would be used in a vampire story.

[24] In Greek mythology, the Dryads were tree nymphs, beautiful maidens who protected the trees. The word 'Dryad' comes from the Greek word "drys" meaning oak. A dryad would die when the trees she oversaw died. A Hamadryad was responsible for only one tree and when it died, she also died. The Dryads were not sworn enemies of Bacchus, rather, because they were a part of nature, they would have been allies. Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, was a Dryad.


[25] In GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (#28) we see an elaborate adaptation of the Bacchae with a modern vampire theme. Just as the Greeks and the Romans changed the original Greek stories, the writers of Xena: Warrior Princess put their spin on and inserted the show's characters into a story. The vampire cult has more relevance to today's television audience and would signify the menace of a cult better than a band of "flower children" like in Euripides' play.

I was also in a 'Monty Python' film as The Black

Dionysus, Greek 3-d style.


NicholasNicholas Nayko
BA in political science 1972. MS in systems management 1976. Works for the Federal Government. Interested in history and militaria, especially Russian. I've enjoyed traveling domestically and abroad, seeing different cultures.
Favorite XWP episodes: ROYAL COUPLE OF THIEVES (#17) and RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29)
Favorite XWP line: Xena: "We all eventually become who we pretend to be" BLIND FAITH (#42)
First episode seen: THE GAUNTLET (H#12)
Least favorite episode: IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (#24)

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