Every other year in many Greek cities, processions of young women wearing deerskin with wreaths of ivy in their hair, and ivy-wrapped wands in their hands, set off out of the city, through the fields and into the wild uplands beyond. They took with them flutes and tambourines, and they were going to dance. They were led by the priestess of Dionysus, and the dances were in his honor.
The men of the city would watch them depart, but would see nothing of what happened in the hills. For the women, the journey symbolized a break with everything they were used to. They exchanged the shelter of the home (a woman’s place) for the wilderness, woven woolen clothes for the skins of wild animals, bread and cooked food for berries, and quiet dignity for ecstatic dancing and singing. And they experienced something beyond all that.
We are given an imaginative picture of these activities in Euripides’ play Bacchae, in which the women of Thebes are driven mad by the god Dionysus, and find themselves in the wilderness, suckling wild beasts, and striking stream of milk from the rocks. That is fantasy, and Euripides’ story ends in disaster, but the play points to an important truth. The psychological impact of the escape from normal life, the noise and the excitement of the singing and dancing will have had a profound effect on the women. The experience would be beyond anything they could know or understand, and could only be explained in the terms they used to describe what was beyond knowledge: in their ecstasy they found themselves in the presence of the god Dionysus himself.
Afterwards the women returned to the city, and to their everyday lives. But for their lives had been transformed forever.
Hugh Bowden is senior lecturer in ancient history at King’s College London. He is the author of Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle and general editor of “The Times” Ancient Civilizations (HarperCollins). His new book is Mystery Cults of the Ancient World (Princeton, 2010).
IMAGE: The Women of Amphissa by Lawrence Alma-Tadema – Once during a war in the middle of the third century BC, the entranced Thyiades (or maenads), as the women that worshiped Dionysus were called, lost their way and arrived in Amphissa
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