by G. Krasskova
One of the very first things I ever read in ancient Greek was Euripides’s “Bacchae.” It brought me closer than I had ever at that point been to Dionysos and His mysteries. I found it terrifying. There’s a point where He begins to enchant the recalcitrant Pentheus, after pages of back and forth attempting to help him see reason and i had such a clear vision of this God in His power, glittering, dangerous, with the darkness of eternity spread out around Him, majestic, utterly deadly, and completely intoxicating – it changed the way I approached Dionysos forever. Pentheus was another matter entirely, however, and when I recently learned that he could be (and in fact is by many) honored as a Dionysian hero I balked at the very thought. It caused me to rework my reading of the play, and my understanding of his role in those hinted-at mysteries.
When I first read “Bacchae,” Pentheus stood out as an example of uncontrolled, stubborn hubris, of violation of divine law, of impiety at its absolute worse. Dionysos gives him every chance to adjust his attitude, and it’s only when the integrity of Semele’s tomb, and the freedom of His women are both threatened that He leads Pentheus to His death. It is only recently (very recently as we just discussed this in our most recent Thiasos chat) that I’ve been able to tease out further nuances. I left the chat early tonight because I wanted to meditate on Pentheus. I had asked our Archeboukolos why Pentheus was so resistant to Dionysos in the first place and he mentioned A) fear of losing control and power and B) ancestral debt. Pentheus is of the line of Cadmus which incurred ancestral debt in the slaying of Ares’ dragon. That debt was never expiated and ancestral debt doesn’t just go away.** It comes down the line creating damage and miasma until and unless it is consciously dealt with. This made me realize something else: Pentheus and Dionysos are cousins. I can’t help but think of the family drama, the jealousy of the all too human man when faced with his divine Kinsman; the inevitable “why him and not me?” that so often rises amongst relations. I’m also struck by the difference between Semele and her sister Agave: one threw herself into the experience of her God and was burned up by it yet it was a fruitful destruction in that Dionysos was born, and one resisted until she too was destroyed but with nothing but disaster coming from that destruction. It was only when one member of our discussion tonight talked about Pentheus as having been forcefully initiated that I started to ‘get’ it. Something about that description of him stopped me in my tracks. It opened something up for me in understanding Pentheus and why, just maybe why he might be honored.
I can connect to Pentheus as someone undergoing an initiation. I’ve done my share and the last almost destroyed my life. It was powerful and sacred and right but integrating it into the threads of my world was a brutal experience. I can’t help but ponder the paradox of initiation: something that we must seek and something we try to avoid at all costs. It breaks down the walls of one’s life, shatters our certainties into incomprehensible shards. It destroys our world. i’ve elsewhere compared initiation to dying: we are not the same people after an initiation as we are before. It brings up every crevasse in our hearts, minds, and souls, every fracture and forces us to dance over that harshest of ground. Even the best of us, the most devout, the most willing must surely become as Pentheus raging against that process when we are deep in the midst of it. He’s the embodiment of the initiate.
I’ve been where he is in the play: raging against divine order, raging against the obvious, raging against the inevitability of evolution. Even knowing better, i’ve spat and cussed and kicked and had my spiritual tantrums. I understand longing desperately for connection with the Gods, longing to be wrapped up in Them, filled by Them too. I know that ache every single day and I know the resentment, desperation, and anger when I’m unable to reach the steady ground in my soul that would permit it. I know too the terror that can precede an initiatory experience, the sense of danger and doom and impending destruction. It’s so very hard, almost impossible not to fight with every fibre of one’s being against that thing that is unknown and that reads like most grievous harm. It’s almost instinctual, some spiritual fight or flight response. It is then that our rage and hubris rears up, a protective shell to ward off the terrible, terrifying vulnerability of what it is to be consumed by one’s God. It blots out for a moment even the longing, because it is born of longing too and a wounded-animal-like response to the vulnerability of wanting so deeply, so soulbone deeply to touch and be touched by one’s Gods. It almost seems a type of madness.
Maybe that is where hubris is born: a madness of the soul, a rage against precisely the medicine that we so desperately need. With Pentheus, it was partly caused by ancestral debt — he has a seriously messed up house–but so many other things can likewise cause that type of spiritual flailing. I might not ever choose to engage with this man’s spirit — many heroes I might pour out a libation to but desire absolutely no interaction with because seriously, we don’t venerate them because they were nice. We venerate them because they embodied something of the mysteries of our Gods, or because they did things of heroic proportions (good or bad) that highlighted the power of the Gods — but I can understand a little better after tonight why he is numbered amongst the heroes. I am reminded with him to be compassionate yet firm in my work. I may be mad with longing for my Gods, but I can choose, in the end, what that makes me. I can choose to battle down my own resistance. I can choose to love Them as well as I possibly can. I can choose to walk into the fire with arms wide open. I can choose to court liberation knowing that it might tear me forever away from the world that I know and think I cherish. I can choose to learn to dance with terror and even when I stumble, it’s the example of Pentheus that can keep me from kicking the dirt in anger instead of incorporating those stumbles into the dance.
Moreover it is through Pentheus that we are given a glimpse of Dionysos in His power, Dionysos in His terrible glory. For that alone, he has a place.
(**That ancestral debt is not in fact sufficiently expiated by Pentheus nor by Oedipus, scion of the same line, who later follows him. In time, Alexander – an avatar of Dionysos– burns the cursed city of Thebes to the ground.)
(the image below is titled “Pentheus mask.”)