περί Βακχῶν (About Bacchantes)

Photo of a 19th century French sculpture of a Bacchante at the National Gallery of Art (© Darryl Smith, 2019)

I’ve always been perplexed by how Bacchantes, the female worshippers of Dionysus, have been portrayed in art after the Ancient Greeks. Looking at Greek ceramics and reading Euripides The Bacchae (I’m currently plowing through Nonnus’ Dionysiaca) have showed me that this strange drunken female fetishization that is apparent in so much art based off of any Dionysian narrative.

If you read the texts you actually can see that Bacchantes were always clothed in animal skin (primarily deer because of its white dots being similar to the stars in the sky) and snakes tied in knots around their waste or in their hair. The whole get-up is quite primal. As these Bacchantes or Maenads participate in the Bacchanal, they are, in a sense, releasing themselves from the world of “reason” and entering a state of mind where all actions are based solely off of initial instinct. In Ancient Greek, the words βακχεύω (bakcheúo) and μαινάς (mainás) refer to Bacchic revelry and madness. I’m low-key terrible at transliteration so I apologize.

As I pull visual imagery from the Ancient Greek world about Dionysos, I often have to tell myself that these myths are conceptual. There is a reason why Bacchantes aren’t lightly draped with thin fabric; there is a reason why they are always dancing and wild. Very few artworks touch on that gruesome, animalistic quality that they have.

Red-figure Cup showing the Death of Pentheus, Douris (painter), terra-cotta, c. 480 B.C. (https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K12.26.html)

ὅταν πίνω τὸν οἶνον,
εὕδουσιν αἱ μέριμναι.
τί μοι πόνων, τί μοι γόων,
τί μοι μέλει μεριμνῶν;
θανεῖν με δεῖ, κἂν μὴ θέλω·
τί τὸν βίον πλανῶμαι;
πίωμεν οὖν τὸν οἶνον
τὸν τοῦ καλοῦ Λυαίου·
σὺν τῷ δὲ πίνειν ἡμᾶς
εὕδουσιν αἱ μέριμναι.

When I drink wine, my worries go to sleep.
What do I care about
troubles, about sorrows, about worries?

I must die, even if I do not
wish to: why puzzle over life?

Let’s drink the wine of fair Lyaeus
for when we drink, our worries go to sleep.

– Anacreontea 45

I guess whenever I see a painting or sculpture with a Maenad in it I start to wonder if they are, as represented, in the act of letting their worries or sorrows go to sleep. But more importantly I have also been interested in the release because that action is a more visceral motion we are all familiar with…also the drama, we can’t forget how dramatic it is.

Σπαραγμός (Mangling), 24-carat goldpoint, silverpoint and egg tempera on hand-gessoed panel, 14”x18” (© Darryl Smith, 2019)

And so I did a drawing based off of this Thebian king being ripped into shreds. A drawing made with gold and silver and painted with egg tempera. I wanted to take the vase painting and interpret it literally, though adding my own flare–in this case the face (my face) is altered and painted to look a bit like the infamous Silenus face from the Villa of the Mysteries fresco in Pompeii. In this piece I wanted to put myself in the shoes of Pentheus; he’s pretty much helpless at this point and all of his speculations and doubts turned out to be more than just a truth, but a living, breathing entity. It’s quite terrifying and I like that.

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