“Fire does not burn them. No weapon of iron can wound them, and the snakes harmlessly lick up the sweat from their heated cheeks. Fierce bulls fall to the ground, victims to numberless, tearing female hands, and sturdy trees are torn up by the roots with their combined efforts.” —Walter Friedrich Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult
A Roman lamp (left) depicts a maenad in the throes of religious ecstasy: her head is thrown back and her hair and clothing seems somewhat disheveled, while her arms are open wide. In one hand she appears to be holding a slaughtered animal, and in the other she grasps a knife, which is pointed upwards. The most recognizable symbol of both historical and mythic Dionysus worship and the mystery cults that sprung up in his honor, the maenad was a complicated symbol of the ancient world: a woman who rejected domesticity in favor of religious ecstasy. And while sacrificial violence was often associated with religious practice in the ancient world, maenads were given an unusually violent association—particularly for women. This essay will examine depictions of the maenad throughout Greek and Roman art, particularly where she is associated with violence, both as perpetrator and as victim, and how her acts of violence cast her into a liminal space in the ancient world: she exists somewhere between feminine and masculine, civilizing impulses and chaotic nature, organized religion and divine madness.
In “Ecstasy and Possession: The Attraction of Women to the Cult of Dionysus,” Ross S. Kraemer writes, “The worship of Dionysus, god of the vine and of life-giving liquids, appears to go back at least to the seventh century in Greece, and early on is associated with rural agricultural festivals […] Dionysiac festivals share the temporary license of drunkenness and sexual expression which characterizes agricultural festivals in other cultures as well.” Kraemer describes that this cult, which evolved over the centuries and took on both public and private dimensions, did allow men but was predominantly a woman’s affair, but one that presented complicated and even contradictory mores for women in the socially restrictive Greek and Roman worlds.
Kraemer writes that insanity and possession were major motifs of Dionysian ritual that presented conflicting themes of sexual abandon, on one hand, and a sort of unnaturally imposed religious abstinence on the other: many of the myths surrounding maenads involve them fleeing the unwanted attentions of satyrs, the half-men, half-goat creatures in Dionysus’ retinue. In some sense, the maenads were also seen as hunters, a predominantly masculine activity. Like the mythical Amazons, they blend attributes of male and female for a creation that is often depicted in ancient art as monstrous or uncanny. While Amazons—shown wielding weapons, in the act of hunting or war, and bare-legged or with breasts exposed—overtly rejected sexual and social relationships with men, maenads also represent a rejection of conventional feminine roles. Kraemer writes, “Women possessed by Dionysus are compelled to abandon, at least temporarily, their domestic obligations of housework and child-rearing in favor of the worship of the god.”
Though often depicted dancing or in the act of ritual revelry, ancient art consistently connected the maenads with acts of violence, or at least the potential for violence, in an almost casual sense. For example, even in this first century Roman copy of a fifth century BCE marble relief, which depicts three maenads dancing, the first holds a knife over her head (see above). In her essay “Knife-Wielding Women of the Bacchanalia,” Lillian Joyce examines the popularity of such depictions in Augustan art, comparing and contrasting Roman practices with the earlier Greek depictions, such as those seen on pelike vases (see below), where they look somewhat similar to Greek renderings of Amazons, albeit with fuller skirts. She writes, “While Greek artists primarily put her on vases, Roman artists rendered the knife-wielder far more often and on a greater variety of media.” Joyce speculates about the purpose of these images and the reason for their popularity, and argues that: “the knife-wielding maenad of art, with her man-made weapon and frequently bared breast, embodied the most exaggerated visualization of a threatening, yet titillating female. The success of the image was that, as art or performance, the knife-wielder provided voyeuristic pleasure without any real danger to the viewer.” I will return to this theme of violence as entertainment shortly, but it is important to note, as Joyce has done, that these images appeared throughout the Roman world in particular and often in unexpected places.
David Parrish writes in “A Mythological Theme in the Decoration of Late Roman Dining Rooms: Dionysos and His Circle” of the popularity of Dionysian imagery in proximity to Roman eating rituals, which include “wall tapestries, marble tables, silver vessels, glass objects, and luxury garments worn during private celebrations and luxury banquets.” While many of these are scenes of revelry, involving dancing, music, and wine and feature satyrs, maenads, and mythological figures like Ariadne and Pan, some contain depictions of violence. Namely, Parris writes of the importance of “the whip (or februum) as a Dionysiac attribute in the late Roman period,” which potentially signified an initiation ceremony into the Dionysian rites. The Riggisberg tapestry at the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, for example, depicts “an episode which has been interpreted as a flagellation or purification of an initiate by a winged female demon of the Underworld (or a Fury), who raises a whip in one hand.” According to Parris, this is possibly to allow “the demon to shield herself from revelation of the Dionysiac phallus, a symbol of positive, procreative forces.”
The sexual themes of both the historical Dionysian rituals and their depictions in art are complicated—no less because of their intimate connection to violence—and seem to have existed more in symbolic rather than literal terms. Kraemer discusses that while there is nebulous evidence for how Dionysian rituals actually played out in daily Greek life, Euripides’ famous tragedy, The Bacchae, which premiered in 405 BCE, helped solidify maenad depictions in art, literature, and myth:
Dionysiac rites which were restricted to the initiated, which were celebrated by night, which involved dancing, and which carried with them the suspicion of sexual misconduct. […] Such rites might have included nocturnal wanderings on the mountains, the nursing of baby wild animals, frenzied dancing, the consumption of wine, honey and milk, and possibly the performance of a two-part sacrificial ritual, the sparagmos (“rendering apart”) and omophagia (“consuming raw”) of a wild beast identified simultaneously with the god and with one’s own son.”
This connection to nature seems to imply a rejection of the human for the divine and the animalistic, even the bestial. Images of dancing maenads frequently include animals, as in a first century Roman terracotta relief (see left) depicting a maenad and a satyr; both are ecstatically dancing, while a snake is wrapped around the maenad’s wrist and a leopard sits at the feet of the satyr, who is also wearing an animal skin. Bulls and goats also took on Dionysian symbolism as they became associated with the ritual, through sacrifice and the use of their horns and skins.
And as Euripides explores in The Bacchae, tearing apart animals with their bare hands was a common feature of maenadism known as sparagmos, a Greek word meaning to tear apart, often in the context of the religious ecstasy experienced during a Dionysian ritual. Maenads were said to possess extraordinary strength during these rituals, during which they would rip animals apart, generally with their hands though sometimes also with weapons, in a particularly grisly, gory interpretation of the traditional Greek or Roman animal sacrifice. In Euripides’ play, the women ultimately visit this horrifying fate upon a king, Pentheus, who has displeased Dionysus. It is his own mother who tears his head from his body, believing in a sort of hysterical frenzy that she’s holding the head of an animal.
In the play, Dionysus travels to Thebes to punish his three aunts, who have claimed that their sister, Dionysus’ mother, did not become pregnant by Zeus but by a mortal man. In revenge, Dionysus curses the women of Thebes with madness and they journey to the mountains for a bacchic ritual that many around the city plan to take part in. But King Pentheus is determined to stop the ritual, bringing Dionysus’ anger directly down upon himself. This results not only in the destruction of the city, but his maenads tear apart local cattle and eventually apprehend Pentheus. His own mother, Dionysus’ Aunt Agave, leads the frenzied charge to rip Pentheus apart. The key scene is particularly over-the-top in its violence, as described by a messenger:
But she, foaming at the mouth and rolling her eyes all about, with her phrenes not as they should be, was under the control of Bacchus, and he did not convince her. Seizing his left arm at the elbow and propping her foot against the unfortunate man’s side, she tore out his shoulder, not by her own strength, but with the god providing assistance to her hands. Ino began to work on the other side, tearing his flesh, while Autonoe and the rest of the crowd pressed on. All were making noise together, and he groaned to the extent that he had life left in him, while they shouted in victory. One of them started to carry an arm, another a leg, boots and all. His ribs were stripped bare by their tearings. The whole band, hands bloodied, started playing a game of catch with Pentheus’ flesh. His body lies scattered in pieces, parts of him in the rugged rocks, others caught in the deep foliage of the woods; the search for them is not easy (1125-1140).”
This scene in particular is depicted in some Greek bacchic art, including on an Attic cup that specify focuses on the death of Pentheus (see right), which seems like a particularly grotesque image to display on a cup.
In “Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’ and Classical Typologies of Pentheus’ ‘Sparagmos,’ 510-406 BC,” Benjamin Weaver writes, “Literary and iconographical representations of the death of Pentheus which clearly predate The Bacchae are rather limited. They consist of a handful of passages from literature and about ten red-figure vase paintings ranging in date from the late sixth century to the late fifth century.” Weaver describes the particularly graphic imagery, where the women “carry or further tear apart the torn torso of Pentheus.” He writes:
From the bottom of his rent torso hang bits of torn flesh and bloodied guts; his left arm shows a deep break in the flesh. […] Pentheus’ torso appears in nearly frontal profile, facing toward the viewer, approximately perpendicular in orientation to the women who grab him from either side. This iconography of flanking women would be used by several later painters. But Euphronios creates an illusion of three-dimensional depth within the composition through the way he represents the women’s application of force to the shoulders and upper arms of the torso.”
This grisly act was depicted on an even larger scale in Rome, in the form of a fresco from around 70 BCE in the House of Vettii in Pompeii (see below), luckily preserved by volcanic ash. In “Master Narratives and the Wall Painting of the House of the Vettii, Pompeii,” Beth Severy-Hoven writes of the space’s several violent frescoes as indicative of sexual sadism as a form of entertainment in the Roman world; notably, they are themed to present divine punishment through figures like Pentheus, Ixion, Pasiphae, and Dirce. Severy-Hoven writes, “At least four of the six mythological panels display torture: Dirce is being pulled apart by a bull, Pentheus by his maenadic female relatives, Ixion is on a rack in the form of a wheel and Daedalus is presenting Pasiphae with the cow costume she will use to satisfy her divinely imposed lust for a bull.” There are notably parallels between Pentheus and Dirce. Like Pentheus, Dirce is essentially a victim of sparagmos; though unlike him, most depictions of the myth occur just before the moment of her death, rather than during or after, as in Pentheus’s case. Notably, Dirce herself is a maenad. While these were generally anonymous figures throughout Greek and Roman art—excepting the women of The Bacchae and occasional other individuals.
In “Dirce Disrobed,” Lilian Joyce writes that Dirce is consciously depicted as a maenad: “With few exceptions, artists portrayed Dirce with thyrsus, loosened hair, animal skin, or a leafy garland: the standard ensemble of a maenad.” Joyce argues that, like the knife-wielding maenads, she represents a “literal loss of female decorum” with her nude chest and torn clothing. The particular cruelty of her means of punishment—and execution—can perhaps be read as vengeance not only for her crime, but for the female excess that she symbolizes. Joyce writes, “Tethering someone to a bull to be trampled to death was one of the most brutal and unusual punishments represented in Roman art. Dirce’s plight fascinated Roman artists and patrons as evidenced by her frequent appearance in large-scale media such as sculpture, mosaic and wall painting, but also in small-scale media such as gems, medals, and terracotta lamps.”
The most famous representation of the Punishment of Dirce is a sculptural group known the Farnese Bull (see below). One of the largest statuary groups in antiquity at around twelve feet tall—carved from a single block of marble—the Farnese Bull depicts the twin sons of Antiope, Amphion and Zethos, in the act of tying Dirce to the horns of a bull, which will inevitably result in her destruction. The wife of King Lykos of Thebes, Antiope’s uncle, Dirce took a particular dislike to the beautiful Antiope, who Dirce forced to become her slave. She ultimately plotted to kill Antiope during a Dionysian ritual by just that means: strapping her a bull so that she would be trampled to death and torn apart.
Overall, the myth has overtly Dionysian elements. Impregnated by Zeus in her youth—when he unusually transformed himself into a satyr—Antiope was separated from her twin sons after their birth and was sent to live with her uncle in Thebes. The children were then raised by a shepherd in the countryside surrounding the city; he later intervened moments before Antiope’s death to inform Amphion and Zethos that they were about to participate in the death of their own mother, at Dirce’s urging. Dirce is thusly given a particularly cruel, ironic death, when she is murdered in the same sadistic yet invented method she herself chose for Antiope. Dirce and Antiope were out in fields to celebrate a Dionysian rite; in some versions of the myth, Dionysus punishes Antiope with madness for profaning his ritual with the murder of Dirce (even though she was not directly involved).
According to Euripides’ Fragments, the lost play Antiope, which relates the tale, is “set at Eleutherae, outside a cave which seems to double as the Herdsman’s home and Dionysus’ shrine”; it is also the birthplace of the twins. In Euripides’ version of the story, it is seemingly through Dionysus’ interference that all participants in the tale wind up at his sacred altar. For example, in pursuit of the escaped Antiope, “Dirce enters, accompanied by a secondary chorus […] comprised almost certainly of her women; they come possessed by Dionysus, to worship him.” According to a surviving fragment of Euripides’ play, “Dirce was brought to the same spot through her ecstatic possession by Dionysus; she found Antiope there and began to drag her away to death.”
Little of this ecstatic frenzy remains in the Farnese Bull, however; Dirce is cowed before the flailing animal, with her arms up in either supplication or in a position of self-defense as the animal rears over top of her. The surviving sculpture is believed to be a Roman copy of the work of Apollonius and Tauriscus of Talles from the end of the second century BCE. Dubbed the Farnese Bull because it was excavated by the Farnese family in the sixteenth century, it would have received a curious amount of public display in Roman times. It was believed to be owned by by the politician, historian, and art collector (among other things) Asinius Pollio (76 BCE-4 CE), who most likely displayed it in his public collection, where it was seen by Pliny and possibly Horace and Vergil.
Later, around 200 CE, it was shown in the Baths of Caracalla. Not only a center for athletics and relaxation, this was a cultural hub that displayed works of art, had spaces for live musical performances, and housed libraries. The belief that culture was good for Romans had been fostered by Augustus and continued to flourish under Caracalla, whose baths had a particularly impressive display of statuary. But the question of why Romans—during Pollio’s time as well as later visitors to the Baths—would want to view Dirce’s bacchic agony is perplexing. Clearly frozen in the moments just before her death, it is unlikely Romans would have pitied the transgressor, as she was about to commit a particularly grisly crime herself and her death can be seen as an act of justice as well as vengeance. In De Clementia, Seneca writes that anger and revenge are imperial motivations for capital punishment and that talio allows for the cruelty of the punishment to equal the cruelty of the crime, perhaps explaining both the irony and sadism present in Dirce’s death.
The Farnese Bull thus imparts a moral lesson—one that ties into the right of divine and thus imperial justice—while also presenting a particularly grisly form of entertainment. Joyce writes, “Artists manipulated the known visual vocabulary of the semi-nude maenad to heighten recognition of Dirce as a specifically female social transgressor.” She writes that Dirce, particularly as she is seen as a maenad, is a living symbol of the connection between the bacchanalia and moral depravity. In this sense, Dirce can be thought of as an erotic spectacle, a theme that would later tie into public reenactments of the myth as a form of execution that accompanied the gladiatorial games. Joyce writes,
The enduring appeal of the Dirce theme in Roman art undoubtedly rested with its combination of morality, drama, violence, and eroticism. The central figure was a vulnerable woman victimized by two vengeful young men and an angry bull. The maenadic attributes in the narrative served, I argue, to emphasize Dirce’ s inability to control herself. Rather than evoking empathy, the brutal and graphic punishment provided a context in which to display a writhing disrobed female body. Her partial nudity in almost all of the representations was an emblem of her liminality and guilt.”
In addition to the Farnese Bull, in the Roman world these depictions of her eroticized death, her “liminality and guilt” could be found everywhere from frescos in Pompeii to a floor mosaic in modern day Croatia to coins minted during the reign of Septimius Severus. The frescos in the House of the Vettii are a particularly noteworthy example, as they emphasize this relationship between art, entertainment, punishment, and erotic spectacle (see below). Beth Severy-Hoven writes, “In the House of the Vettii’s scenes of Dirce, Pentheus, Ixion and Pasiphae, note that we are not seeing sympathy for the punished or identification with the tortured in these paintings commissioned by masters. These punishments are instead eroticised; the bodies of those being punished are presented for the viewer’s pleasure.” In the Dirce fresco, she is the central image and is positioned quite differently than in the Farnese Bull sculpture. Nearly nude, with her dress pushed down to her thighs, she is partly kneeling on the ground and is being stretched upward—in order to be strapped to the bull—though she is already under its hooves.
The myth and its artistic renderings also took on a very real form when the Punishment of Dirce was enacted live in the arena with Christian women being sent to their deaths in a similar fashion. During a segment of the gladiatorial games known as damnatio ad bestias—literally “damnation to beasts,” a form of execution using animals—this literalization of mythic sparagmos was particularly sadistic and humiliating. In “Fatal Charades,” Kathleen Coleman writes, “In a society where mythology was the cultural currency, the ritual events of ordinary life might naturally be set in a mythological context; to put it more broadly, Greco-Roman mythology provided an all-encompassing frame of reference for everyday Roman experience.”
In a sense, these mythic reenactments bring the erotic, bestial, and violent elements of the bacchanalia full circle. In addition to the sheer spectacle of women’s deaths, which likely would have involved nudity as their clothes were rent during the execution—the erotic aspect of which is most overtly depicted by 19th century art like Henryk Siemiradzki’s “Christian Dirce” (see below) and Herbert Gustave Schmalz’s “Faithful Unto Death” (see two paragraphs down)—there were even occasional examples of bestiality as execution. This connects loosely back to the seemingly supernatural control maenads had over animals while in a trance and the alleged sexual excess of Dionysian ritual, but also myths like the rape of Europa and Pasiphae’s doomed union that resulted in the birth of the minotaur. Coleman writes, “Although instances of bestiality are known in which women have performed intercourse with various animals, and in certain cultures such enactments are allegedly performed as public entertainment […] how are we to envisage intercourse between a woman and a bull in the arena?” Allegedly the victim’s vagina was smeared with the secretions of a cow in heat to entice the bull, resulting in a particularly cruel and painful death.
The bull both as a prominent fixture in Roman religious sacrifice and as an occasional symbol for Dionysus brings a sexual element not only to this ritual of execution, but to the act of carrying out justice on social outliers like criminals, prisoners of war, barbarians, and Christians and other heretics. In Seneca in Performance, Joanne Shelton wrote: “the killing of foreign captives before the assembled Roman populace allowed the city inhabitants to confront the enemy, to enjoy the excitement of victory, and to participate in the process of imposing Roman justice on a barbarian world.” And in this sense the figure of the maenad—particularly in terms of depictions of her as a destructive force—is symbolic of woman, and especially feminine desire, as a violent, unpredictable element that must be constrained and controlled by Roman society.
Philosopher Rene Girard writes of the pharmakos, a sacrificial figure who allowed a society to purge its violent impulses through ritual expulsion or execution. The maenad—as both mythic and historical figure—can be seen as a repository for Greek and especially Roman fears about women, foreigners, and social outliers, so it is perhaps not surprising that she would be a vessel for great violence, particularly in the sense that Dionysian ritual occurs out in nature, on the outskirts of society, involves divine madness, and a perversion of state ritual sacrifice (through sparagmos and omophagia). In a metaphorical, but also real sense, the maenad represents the rejection of domesticity, of the foundational comforts of civilized Roman life in favor of the wild, the unrestrained, and the ungovernable.
In the late second century, the Roman Senate became terrorized at the thought of such rituals and (temporarily) banned these mystery cults. In “The Bacchanalian Cult of 186 B. C.,” Tenney Frank writes of “the Bacchanalian rites which were suppressed with much cruelty by the Senate in 186 B.C.” and discusses how this resulted from Roman misinterpretation of religious mysteries and fear of women, foreigners, and foreign customs. Some scholars, as Frank expounds, have drawn a connection between the emergence of Dionysian mysteries to the conquest of the East and influx of Easterners into the empire. In this sense then, later depictions of maenads—such as the numerous instances of the Punishment of Dirce that appeared in the Roman world—were violent spectacles with nuanced layers of meaning. They included erotic appeal, grotesque entertainment, and a sense of catharsis at sadistic punishment. Girard writes,
Society is seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a ‘sacrificeable’ victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect […] if left unappeased, violence will accumulate until it overflows its confines and floods the surrounding area. The role of sacrifice is to stem this rising tide of indiscriminate substitutions and redirect violence into ‘proper’ channels.”
The Roman rituals of execution, held in the gladiatorial arena, are an interesting final glimpse of the twisting of the maenad myth in the ancient world, in the curious case where mythic violence became overshadowed by a more horrifying reality: the fears of the unruly woman hinted at in early Greek depictions of knife-wielding maenads was thus given its absolute form.
Coleman, K.M. “Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments.” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 80 (1990), pp. 44-73.
Euripides. The Bacchae. Translated by T. A. Buckley. Harvard University, http://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5303. Accessed 23 June 2017.
Euripides. Euripides, Vol. VIII: Oedipus-Chrysippus & Other Fragments (Loeb Classical Library, No. 506). Harvard University Press, 2009.
Frank, Tenney. “The Bacchanalian Cult of 186 B. C.” The Classical Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 3/4 (Jun. – Oct., 1927), pp. 128-132.
Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Joyce, Lillian B. “Dirce Disrobed.” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 20, No. 2 (October 2001), pp. 221-238.
Joyce, Lillian B. “Knife-Wielding Women of the Bacchanalia.” Southeastern College Art Conference Review (2010), Vol. 15 Issue 5, pp. 521-535
Kraemer, Ross S. “Ecstasy and Possession: The Attraction of Women to the Cult of Dionysus.” The Harvard Theological Review Vol. 72, No. 1/2 (Jan. – Apr., 1979), pp. 55-80.
Otto, Walter Friedrich. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana University Press, 1995.
Parrish, David. “A Mythological Theme in the Decoration of Late Roman Dining Rooms: Dionysos and His Circle.” Revue Archéologique, Nouvelle Série, Fasc. 2 (1995), pp. 307-332.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Seneca: Moral Essays, Volume I (Loeb Classical Library No. 214). Harvard University Press, 1928.
Severy-Hoven, Beth. “Master Narratives and the Wall Painting of the House of the Vettii, Pompeii.” Gender & History. Volume 24, Issue 3 (November 2012), pp 540–580.
Shelton, JoAnn. “The Spectacle of Death in Seneca’s Troades,” in Seneca in Performance, ed. George W. M. Harrison. Duckworth, 2000.
Weaver, Benjamin. “Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’ and Classical Typologies of Pentheus’ ‘Sparagmos,’ 510-406 BC.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Vol. 52 (2009), pp. 15-43.