Dionysius: God of ecstasy and revenge

“Dionysius is, in essence, a god of ecstasy and retribution.” I will be looking at the tales of Dionysius, and how these tales support his role as god of ecstasy and retribution.


As the god of ritual insanity, Dionysius has the ability to make people go insane at will. He makes people go into a trance where they lose all awareness. He uses this skill for both good and bad reasons. The Maenads, also known as the Bacchantes, are sent into a state of joyful delirium through performing rituals in honour of Dionysius. This ecstasy is a good way in which insanity is associated with Dionysius. However, it is mostly used as a form of punishment for those who disobey Dionysius or deny his cult. The four daughters of Cadmos are representative of the four types of insanity and intoxication; drunkenness, loss of awareness, sexual appetite and madness. G. S. Kirk describes Dionysius as “the focus of an ecstatic religion” and that he “represents the irrational element in man.”

Dionysius is the god of wine, and at his festivals a vast amount of wine is drunk. In artwork he if often depicted with a drinking vessels and with a thyrsos made of vines and ivy, which represent the vines on which the grapes to make wine grow. “The thyrsus indicates that those who have drunk a lot of wine cannot function with their own two feet, but need thyrsoi for support” (Cornutus 30). Old Silenus is a famous character in the followers of Dionysius. He is a middle-age man with a pot belly and he rides on a donkey, because he is too drunk to stand or walk by himself.

Dionysian rituals were very noisy; with singing, music, dancing, screaming and shouting. These rituals were also seen as very sexual and were linked with a loss of inhibitions: “wine is a stimulant to intercourse.”The Satyrs were another mythological group that were part of Dionysius’ entourage. They were male followers who had the ears of a goat and the tail of a horse. They were naked, usually with erect phalluses and were associated with pipe playing. The erect phalluses signify their lust for the Maenads, who they would pursue. The Maenads were never pictures facing outwards, and this was to create the illusion of movement and dancing while they are in extasis.

Disney’s Fantasia contains a representation of a Dionysian ritual. In the film we can see centaurs preparing for the ritual by gathering grapes. It is a time of celebration for them. The fauns, which are half man and half goat, help to squeeze the grapes and play pipes or horns. These are similar to the Satyrs in their goat-like appearance and their choice of musical instruments. Dionysius is depicted as a figure which may be confused with Old Silenos. He is overweight, drunk, carrying a goblet of wine and is attempting to ride a donkey. He has grapes and ivy leaves as a head piece. All the characters join together in the celebrations. There are sexual undertones in this scene: Dionysius chases the female centaurs trying to kiss them yet they keep managing to evade him and in his drunken state he ends up kissing the donkey. The festivities are interrupted by Zeus, who throws thunderbolts out of the sky. However, Dionysius manages to forget all his cares with the help of the wine. The film is only takes the Dionysian rituals as a loose model for its own story, yet we can see them bowing down to the Dionysius character and laying red carpet under his feet.

Disney’s Dionysius/Silenos

The best example of both ecstasy and retribution regarding Dionysius is the myth of Pentheus. Dionysius’ mother Semele was killed when Zeus, Dionysius’ father, revealed himself to her in his true form and accidentally burnt her alive with a thunderbolt. Semele’s sisters spread rumours that she was killed by Zeus as a punishment for lying about Zeus being the father of her unborn child. One of the sisters was named Agave and it is her son Pentheus who became the King of Thebes. He banned the cult of Dionysius, believing it was unlawful, dangerous and promiscuous. In Euripedes’ play The Bacchae, Dionysius tells the audience about this; “[Pentheus] fights against the deity in my person, pushes me from my libations and makes mention of me nowhere in his prayers.” We know Dionysius wants to punish Pentheus for doubting his greatness. Not only does he want to punish Pentheus, he wants to punish all those who slandered his mother. Dionysius sends the women of Thebes insane and they go into the mountains to take part in an orgiastic festival. He puts them in a state of ecstasy to keep them from returning to their homes and families. In The Bacchae, Dionysius disguises himself as a human who spreads the word of Dionysius. Yet Pentheus is stubborn and refuses to back down. What Dionysius does convince him to do however, is to dress up as a woman and to spy on the Maenads. Pentheus is unaware that the penalty for spying on the Maenads is to be subjected to sparagmos, where they tear the spy limb from limb while still alive. The women of Thebes find Pentheus, but in their ecstatic state they believe he is a lion and the women, led by Agave, tear him apart. Dionysius is able to punish those who have wrong him using his ability to send people insane and lose awareness of their own actions.

Revenge is a key theme in the myth of Dionysius and the Pirates. They Tyrrhenian pirates try to hold Dionysius against his will. In Apollodorus M4, they wanted to sell him into slavery, in Hyginus 134 he has concealed himself as a young boy, so they want to rape him and in Homeric Hymns 7, Dionysius was captured on land and forced onto the ship by the pirates. Only one man on the ship tried to defy his captain and the other pirates but they abuse him. To get his revenge, Dionysius turns the mast and oars into snakes and filled the ship with ivy and the sound of flutes. In Homeric Hymns, Dionysius turns himself into a lion and makes a bear appear. The pirates are sent mad and jump overboard to escape his wrath, and they are turned into dolphins. Only the pirate who went again his captain was spared, and he was praised by Dionysius for his compassion. This shows Dionysius is not a cruel god, he only punishes those who have done him harm.

The story of Lycurgus is another where Dionysius is mistreated, and Lycurgus is made to repent for what he has done. After drinking too much wine, Lycurgus felt the urge to rape his mother. After this experience, he declared wine was evil and he tried to uproot the vines that grew the grapes. Dionysius drove Lycurgus mad as reparation for his wrongdoings. Ina state of frenzy and unawareness, Lycurgus killed his wife and son. Afterwards, Dionysius fed him to panthers. Again, we see how Dionysius can be powerful if crossed, and we should be fearful and respectful of him.

Dionysius uses his power of ecstasy as a form of reward, and a form of punishment. He can send people into trances; send them from rational to irrational thought. Susan G. Cole sees this; “One moment a place for ritual and source of spontaneous nourishment, the next… a place of murder and bloody dismemberment.” Dionysius punishes only those who have mistreated him or his cult; he is not a malicious god. His main method of retribution is sending people into a mindless frenzy, making them hurt those they love and care for. His role as a deity in charge of wine helps him to transport people into this condition. Though just like the pirate who tried to save him, if you are reverent and respectful of Dionysius, he will reward you; by putting you in a blissful state of extasis.

Works cited

  • Primary text: Trzaskoma, S. M., Scott Smith, R. and Brunet, S. (ed.) (2004) Anthology of Classical Myth. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Cole, Susan G. (2003) ‘Landscapes of Dionysos and Elysian Field’ in Cosmopoulos, Michael B. (ed.) Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults. London: Routledge, pp 193-217.
  • Euripides. (1999) Bacchae and Other Plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fantasia (1940) Directed by Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley and Ford Beebe [Film]. Los Angeles: Walt Disney Productions.
  • Kirk, G. S. (1974) The Nature of Greek Myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Zielinski, Thaddeus. (1926) The Religion of Anceint Greece; an outline. Translated by George Rapall Noyes. London: Oxford University Press.

Drama thrives on the conflict not between right and wrong but between different kinds of right

In this entry I will look at how conflicting views of what is ‘right’ creates the drama in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Euripede’s Iphigenia at Aulis.

This post will examine Iphigenia At Aulis (Euripedes) and Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare) where conflict arises through the different beliefs of the ‘right’ course of action, especially regarding murder. We can easily identify the differences between what is morally right and wrong, these views are usually linked with things which are legally right and wrong. We recognize that doing the right thing is obviously the correct action to take, and that we should oppose the wrong action. So when different opinions of right go head-to-head, which is the best action to take?

In Iphigenia At Aulis, Agamemnon is torn between doing right by his family, and doing right by his country. If he does not sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, his army cannot sail to war. We accept that murder is morally and legally wrong, and to intentionally kill one’s child, filicide, is extremely immoral. On the other hand, we realise that sometimes the greater good of a country, with many people, is more important than an individual. If he decides to save Iphigenia, he is disregarding his duties as leader of the Greek army and is also disrespecting Greece, but if he sacrifices her, he will upset his wife and her mother, Clytemnestra, and lose his eldest child. At first, Menelaus believes that Iphigenia should be sacrificed, because it is Agamemnon’s duty, as their leader, to take them to war. Their conflicting views leads to a heated argument between the two brothers. Yet when Menelaus thinks about the situation more thoroughly, he sees it is not right for Agamemnon to execute Iphigenia, but in spite of this, Agamemnon is now convinced he should sacrifice his daughter, “we have come to a point where necessity dictates our fortunes”(p98, 511-512). By taking the life of his daughter, Agamemnon believes that they can do the right thing: save the Greek wives that are being raped in Troy, and retrieve Helen. The reader knows that Clytemnestra and Iphigenia will not agree with Agamemnon’s concept of ‘right’ and therefore disagreements will take place between the two sides. Clytemnestra indeed feels betrayed by her husband and this leads to another argument;

“I, who have been loyal to your bed, shall be robbed of my child, and the woman who sinned will get back her girl under her roof in Sparta and find happiness” (p120, 1202-1205).

The conflict in Iphigenia at Aulis arises from Agamemnon’s shifting loyalty between his family and the Greek army. The play’s drama happens when the characters have different opinions of what ‘right’ is, and are trying to change the outcome of Iphigenia’s future. Where there are opposing views of right, conflict appears.

In Titus Andronicus there are also conflicting beliefs of what is ‘right’ over murder as a right of sacrifice, and loyalty to his army. Titus returns from war. His sons have been killed in battle and he has taken Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius, and Aaron the Moor as prisoners. Titus reveals that he will kill Alarbus as a sacrifice, in respect to the men who have died at war. When Tamora begs him for Alarbus’ life, he says to her;

“for their brethren slain, / Religiously they ask a sacrifice. / To this your son is marked, and die he must, / T’appease their groaning shadowsthat are gone.”(1.1.126-129)

Titus believes it is the right thing to do by his surviving and deceased army members. Unlike Agamemnon, he is not hesitant in his actions. The Latin phrase “Ad marnes fratrum” (1.1.101.) which means “to the shades of our brothers”, shows the ritual-like act that they are about to carry out, which Lucius later describes as their “Roman rites” (1.1.146). Nevertheless, we accept any murder as wrong. Alarbus’ murder, however, will pacify the Roman brothers who have died, which is very important to them and something we can relate to, which is why funerals are so important after the death of a loved one. The sacrificing of Alarbus acts as a catalyst to the drama in the rest of the play. Without this, Tamora would not have sought for vengeance and the subsequent drama would not have followed. Tamora seeks to avenge her son through murder, just like Titus avenges his sons through murder.

Titus also kills his daughter, Lavinia, in the final scene. He has asked Saturninus, the Emperor, was it “well done” (5.3.36) i.e. right, of Virginius to kill his daughter after she was “enforced, stained and deflowered” (5.3.38). Saturninus said that it was, because “the girl could not survive her shame” (5.3.40). Titus’ ‘right’ decision to kill his daughter after her rape and dismemberment, contrasts more modern beliefs that she should not be killed because of this, it was not her fault, and therefore should feel no shame. We are shocked that Titus has killed Lavinia as it is very sudden and although was obviously planned between Lavinia and Titus, the audience were not aware of this. In the cultural context of this play, the killing of Lavinia seems reasonable and just, yet is conflicting with the view that any murder is wrong. The murder of Lavinia reveals to Saturninus that it was Chiron and Demetrius who raped and amputated Lavinia. The death of Tamora, Titus and Saturninus ensues, in a scene that if full of drama. Titus feels he has taken vengeance for Lavinia’s ordeals, something that is right, yet he has murdered, he feels justly, to do it. The distinctions between various opinions of right create the drama in Titus Andronicus.

Drama occurs through the opposition of different beliefs of what is ‘right’. If every person had the same principles of what is right and wrong, there would never be any disagreement, and therefore no conflict. We believe it is simple to tell the difference between what is wrong and right, yet it is when there is more than one version of right, conflict takes place. In Iphigenia At Aulis it is Agamemnon’s adjusting loyalty creates the conflict, whereas in Titus Andronicus it is the character’s strong opinions of wrong and right that create conflict. Diversities of moral, and sometime legal, values creates drama in a play.

Side note: Even if you aren’t very interested in reading Shakespeare, I urge you to watch the 1999 film Titus directed by Julia Taymor. It is quite long but it is an amazing piece of work and depicted in a way that I haven’t seen in any other Shakespeare film adaptations. All of the Titus Andronicus pictures I have used are screenshots from the film. 

  • Shakespeare, William. (1995) Titus Andronicus, ed. Jonathan Bate. London :The Arden Shakespeare.
  • Euripedes. (2008) Iphigenia At Aulis. In Bacchae and Other Plays, trans. James Morwood. New York: Oxford World Classics.

Shadows in Horror Films: Fear of the Unknown

The fear of the unknown is one of the most natural and instinctive fears that we have. I will talk about how directors use the shadows to help create panic in the audience.

Being scared is one of our most natural instincts. We are scared of what we don’t understand. Shadows represent this fear as we wonder what is lurking within them. The power of the human imagination can make us believe highly irrational thoughts are true, especially when we don’t have much information about the situation. Shadows in their nature are obscure, which raises our suspicion and creates a feeling of fear. From a young age, we are taught to fear certain things. Fear is an important tool to keep ourselves safe. Our parents try to teach us the importance of our own safety and we learn to fear anything that may threaten this. We are told not to be out after dark or wander off alone. This idea is reflected in Fabiansson’s work; “Children are taught to be afraid…to be careful of the unknown and fearful of strangers.

These fears continue into our adult lives. Even though we may be scared of different things as adults, we still get scared of the unknown. If we are in another person’s house at night and there are noises downstairs, we don’t know what the sounds are and we get a little nervous. However, if we were in our own house at night and heard a noise downstairs, we could tell whether it was the dog, the dishwasher or the heating etc. There is no unknown in our own house, so we aren’t scared.

In his essay Fear Itself, John Hollander talks about the different types of fear. He distinguishes a fear of the unknown e.g. a fear that there is no afterlife, whereas a ‘nameless fear’ is “fear induced by some unknown object.” Shadows represent the unknown. If we see a shadow moving across a wall, it is very difficult to see what, or who, is creating the shadow. Even if the shadow is defined, we still have no more information about the object than its shape. Hollander talks about the “meta-fear of disorientation” which is when we do not know what exactly is scaring us, or whether we should be scared of it in the first place. He says having a fear of something is not the same as the fear that it may turn out to be something else.

A good technique used by filmmakers is to create a clearly defined shadow, with an inhuman or unrecognisable shape to create confusion. This lack of information is difficult for us to handle so we try to fill in the details ourselves. The shadow is clear enough that we can’t mistake the shape, but because the shape is unrecognisable it scares us. Even though we try, we know our ideas may be nothing like the reality, so try to think of all possibilities. As we go from one thought to the next, fear makes us think irrationally and also allows us to believe these thoughts are true. We can only know what is there when it is revealed. Filmmakers frequently use shadows because the human imagination conjures up what is most terrifying to each person. This is an intelligent method because if they had to create a monster, they would be isolating the audience that isn’t scared by that monster. It is a simple, yet highly effective way to evoke fear. Cinemas help to exaggerate any fears the audience has. The darkness, the loud noises, the huge screen and the crowd atmosphere overwhelms the senses. There are thousands of films that use this technique, but I will just mention a few.

The opening scene of the 2001 film Monsters, Inc. shows the basic idea behind shadows as a tool to terrify us. It shows the character Thaddeus Bile creeping into a boy’s bedroom. We notice that it is only after the parents leave and turn off the lights that this happens. This enhances the idea that there are things lurking in the dark. A shadow flashes across the screen, then as the monster stands over the bed, we really believe he wants to hurt the boy. We can only see his glowing eyes in his silhouette. Yet when the child screams in terror, Thaddeus also screams, and then falls around the bedroom. Suddenly all the fear we had for him disappears.

File:Thaddeus Bile Scaring.jpg

Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity is another film where shadows are used to create panic. In this film we never see the monster, and it is never revealed to us. During the 20th night we hear the creature coming up the stairs, and then we see its shadow on the door of the bedroom. It is unnerving because we can’t see the creature, and wonder how it even has a shadow if there is no solid figure in the first place. The fact that it has footsteps and the ability to drag Katie out of bed indicates it has enough physical presence, but no form that is visible to us. This leads us to come up with our own ideas of what it may be, yet this proves so difficult because we are provided with severely limited information.

Freddy Krueger’s character in Nightmare on Elm Street – both the 1984 film and the 2010 remake – uses the shadows to scare his victims. In Wes Craven’s 1984 version of the film, Tina’s death is a perfect example of how shadows are used. Just before Freddy Krueger appears, his hatted silhouette appears on a fence. He then emerges and walks towards Tina. A flicker of light reveals his disfigured face before he is in darkness once again. His arms appear twice as long as they should be, and his deformed face creates a strange shape to look at. Tina runs away from him, but he suddenly appears in front of her and she bumps into him. This serves to make Freddy part of the shadows. He represents the darkness. In the 2010 remake, directed by Samuel Bayer, Kris’ death is the remake of Tina’s. Both of the boyfriends can only stand by helplessly as their girlfriends are being slashed to death. Kris goes out to find her dog and she finds it slashed in the garden. Freddy is standing in the darkness, yet the blades he used to kill the dog glisten with blood. He then chases her around, again using the shadows. The fact that we sleep at night in dark rooms adds to this effect. Whenever the characters encounter Freddy they are dreaming, and dreams are never like how the world really is. Things can happen in dreams that don’t happen when we are awake, and this makes Freddy extra terrifying because he isn’t bound by the rules of reality like the rest of us.

Any person will fear what they can’t understand, it’s natural. We’re all rational and like to explain things because explanations take the fear out of the unknown. However, shadows only give us a warped representation of what the thing is. Shadows are used by directors to manipulate this fear of the unknown. All horror directors use images that are supposed to frighten us, and using darkness and shadows is a very popular way to do this.

Works cited

  • Charlotte Fabiansson – “Young People’s Perception Of Being Safe – Globally & Locally”
  • John Hollander – “Fear Itself”
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Paranormal Activity
  • Monsters, Inc

Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ – Why is time so important?

I take a look at one of Shakespeare’s great plays and how the whole story could have been different if there was just a little more time…

Time has a key role to play in The Winter’s Tale. What creates tragedy in a play or book is that time runs out. E.g. we are saddened if the hero arrive five minutes too late to save the hostages. In comedies, there is just enough time: the hero disarms the bomb with one second to go. In this case, Leontes realises his mistake too late. It is the expectation of tragedy that allows for this comic relief. In The Winter’s Tale the hope that Leontes will see his blunder before Hermione before something happen he will later regret. Both his son and his wife die before it dawns on him what has happened. However, the comic relief at the end of the play is only able to happen with the death of Hermione. This is why The Winter’s Tale has been called a tragicomedy.  Hartwig states that the experience of Hermione’s apparent reincarnation is “discovery of that joyful truth is so exhilarating that no one worries about the trickery involved in creating it.” We suspend our disbelief while we enjoy the miracle before us. The play itself is set in no particular era; it is simultaneously subject to both time and timelessness.

The opening of the play shows a heavily pregnant Hermione trying to persuade Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to stay with them for a while longer. This arouses the suspicion of her husband Leontes, King of Sicilia, who starts to believe that she is having an affair. Polixenes has already stayed with Leontes and Hermione for nine months, a time universally recognized as the length between a baby’s conception and its birth. The fact that Polixenes has stayed with them throughout this time is obviously playing on Leontes’ mind, yet he puts two and two together and comes up with five. The king is tortured by the belief his childhood friend has betrayed him. His unfounded ideas lead to his deteriorated mental state and act as a catalyst to the remainder of the action in the play.

The Winter’s Tale is not the only Shakespeare play where men are driven mad by the thoughts that the women around them are deceitful beings. In King Lear, Lear is sent insane by the exposure of Goneril and Regan as cruel and merciless daughters. In The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice Othello is tormented by the belief that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.

Leontes is told by Hermione and Polixenes that he is wrong, echoed by many of their friends and acquaintances: one lord tells Leontes “the queen is spotless”, Camillo pleads with Leontes to “be cured / of this diseased opinion” and Paulina tells him “I am no less honest / than you are mad.” Despite all this, Leontes answers their pleas with “You’re liars all” and he declares he is in “a nest of traitors.” The longer that Leontes is obscured by his distrust, the less time he will have to resolve the situation before something irreversible happens.

Leontes demands an oracle and it reveals what we all know: that Hermione and Polixenes are both innocent. However, it also tells us “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” Strangely, even this divine oracle does nothing to persuade Leontes that his assumptions are groundless. During this trial, a servant runs in and tells the court that Mamillius has died. Hermione collapses with grief and is taken out. It is in this moment Leontes finally comes to his senses. He sees how he was “transported by [his] jealousies / To bloody thoughts and to revenge.” Unfortunately it’s too late: time has run out. Hermione and Mamillius are dead, and his daughter is lost.

Act IV opens with Time itself acting as a narrator. It tells us that sixteen years have passed since the day of the trial. In Sicilia, it appears as if no time has passed; Leontes has shut himself up in isolation. In contrast, time in Bohemia has allowed Perdita –  the “lost one” – and Florizel to blossom into young adults and fall in love. The name Florizel seems to be suggestive of flowers and nature, things we associate with growth and the passing of time. In their introduction to The Winter’s Tale, Synder and Curren-Aquino say that time in the sixteen years gap passes “hurriedly in Sicilia, leisurely in Bohemia”.  In act V, Paulina asks Leontes to promise never to marry again without her permission and if he is to marry, she shall pick his queen. They are in limbo: stuck in purgatory until the oracle is fulfilled and their lives can carry on. They talk about when Leontes will marry again and Paulina talks in prophetic terms. On first reading we take it to mean he may never marry again, yet on second reading of the play, we see what Paulina has planned. Suddenly, Florizel and Perdita appear in Leontes’ kingdom, asking for his help. It seems fate has led them here. That which was lost has been found, and they can now look to the future.

Paulina reveals the statue of Hermione and it is Paulina that brings Hermione back to life. Hermione has healed from the hurt and shame that Leontes has caused her, and she is finally ready for the “re-establishing [of] an intimate bond with Leontes.” It almost seems as if she has been in hiding for sixteen years, being cared for by Paulina. This now gives more meaning to Paulina’s earlier statements regarding when Leontes will re-marry; “She shall not be so young / As was your former” and “when your first queen’s again in breath.” We can now see that Hermione has aged too, waiting for this moment.

It is this reincarnation of Hermione where we see time’s “most amazing triumph: the rebirth of a marriage…” Time has allowed the reunion of Leontes and Hermione as a happily married family. Time has made the heart grow fonder and as Leontes and Hermione embrace, there is no hint of any bitterness or resentment. Not only are they reunited with each other; they are reunited with their lost daughter; Leontes is reunited with Camillo and Polixenes and Florizel is reunited with his father. We now realise that Paulina “has known and controlled the central miracle.” She has been the stage director. This moment of pure delight was saved by Paulina until the right moment. Just as Hermione has forgiven all wrongs, so does the audience. We forgive Leontes for his previous errors and we join the characters in their moment of raw pleasure. The absence of Mamillius is the only thing which makes this incident any less satisfying.

Time is important in The Winter’s Tale for many reasons. Shakespeare uses time to create suspicion, heartache and joy. If only Leontes had spent more time thinking about what he was accusing Polixenes and Hermione of, he would have realized his mistake and the following tragedies would have been averted. He is then stuck in a period of remorse and grief until the oracle is fulfilled. Sicilia has become a timeless state until Perdita “the lost one” is found. Time has not stood still in Bohemia however; it has permitted Perdita and Florizel to grow up, which is fundamental for the play to progress. Time is the only reason Hermione has been reincarnated. Time has healed her wounds and allowed Leontes to reflect and learn from his experiences. Time is central to the plays advancement. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays, which last a very short period of time, The Winter’s Tale had to be set over a long period of time to make it the play that it is.