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Greek gods and those who doubted them July 3, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology.

It was a bad day in the year 406 B.C.

Euripides, an elderly playwright, was wandering around the palace, skulking in his gloom. For decades he had dedicated himself to the theater and written and directed more than 90 plays, performed before thousands of people. Yet for all his pains, he had won prizes for only three of his dramas, a minuscule number compared to his rivals Sophocles and Aeschylus.

More than once, he had been held up to public ridicule by the tart-tongued comedian Aristophanes. In sadness and anger, Euripides left his home in Athens and accepted an offer to live in distant Macedon, where he would write his last plays in self-imposed exile.

Euripides might have been more successful if he had not made a point of pointing out the flaws of the pagan gods who presided over Athens’ destiny.

Like his personal friend Socrates, Euripides thought the stories of the old gods depicted the immortals as powerful beings with the morals of spoiled children.

Raised in democratic Athens, Euripides felt no qualms about walking freely around the royal palace of the Macedonian kings. Unfortunately, he did not realize that in a monarchy, certain parts of the palace are off limits to visitors, and he meandered into the king’s apartments and into a pack of the king’s guard dogs. The hungry dogs were not informed that the guest was possibly the greatest Greek dramatic writer of all time, and that was the end of Euripides.

Euripides’ greatest play was perhaps the Bacchae, which he wrote in his last hours. This was the story of the introduction of the cult of the god Dionysios to Greece. The story went that the god Dionysios has been conceived by a union between Zeus, king of the gods, and the beautiful Semele, daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes. When her sister, Agave, challenged Semele, saying that her lover could not be a god, she planted a seed of doubt in the heart of the princess.

Pining for proof of her lover’s divine nature, she demanded and got an oath by the river Styx, the river of the dead whose name no god could violate, that he would show himself in divine glory. After many protests, Zeus reluctantly manifested himself to his doubting lover, but alas, the power of his majesty incinerated the mortal girl, doubts and all.

But at Semele’s doom, Zeus discovered that she was pregnant with his child, the god Dionysios, and an immortal god, even unborn, he could not be destroyed. Stitching the young god into his thigh, Zeus brought his unborn child to birth, and eventually he was received into the pantheon of the gods as the patron of wine and ecstasy. For causing his mother to doubt her divine partner, the gods condemned Agave to perpetual madness, and she wandered the hills in a religious trance.

Euripides goes on to describe the unfolding of the drama. The throne of Cadmus was passed to Cadmus’ grandson, Pentheus, his heir by the doubting Agave. Pentheus ruled Thebes with a rigid hand, until his kingdom was visited by the god Dionysios. Upon the god’s arrival in the land, hundreds of maidens rushed to the fields and forests to dance and sing in honor of the newly arrived god. But Pentheus, full of rage at a rival to his earthly glory, declared the new god to be an impostor and forbade his worship.

The god Dionysios came to earth in mortal form to visit the fuming Pentheus, who condemned the god and ordered his arrest. Dionysios was taken into bondage, but the prison which held him was shaken by an earthquake and he escaped. Arrested again, Pentheus confronted the god, who replied that the earthly king did not know what he was doing.

In a final and terrible confrontation with the veiled god, Dionysios offered the prudish king the opportunity to see the young maidens dancing in their skimpy clothes upon the mountains. Seduced by voyeurism, Pentheus agreed to the viewing, which leads to his doom.

When the prurient king dared to gaze on the dancing maidens in their wild abandon, they turned on him like crazed animals, and he was torn limb from limb, his own mother Agave ripping off his head with her bare hands in a moment of demented triumph. But this bloodbath hardly seemed like a moral judgment of an immortal god who was presumably endowed with heavenly wisdom.

In the last scene, the arrogant wine god reveals to the survivors the horror of what they have done, and explains to them how divine justice has been accomplished, for those who denied the power of the god have been destroyed by their own impious acts. The aged Cadmus and bloody Agave pointed out that this was a very harsh sentence for a few religious doubts, but the god ignores them. Neither Pentheus nor Dionysios comes out of the story looking well. Nonetheless, Euripides’ image of a veiled god in human form, condemned before a earthly magistrate, vindicated by a manifestation of divine power, was a literary theme which would be taken up by later religions.

It is a tragic irony, worthy of Greek tragedy, that King Pentheus in the play, and Euripides in real life, both came to the same nasty end, mauled to bloody bits by wild things.

The irony was not lost on Euripides’ son, who after the funeral rites, took his father’s last play back to Athens and had it performed at the annual festival of the god Dionysios in 406. There it won both critical acclaim and first prize in the annual contest. One can imagine the ghost of the cantankerous Euripides smiling at the performance, as the selfish god was shown in his arrogance at the very dramatic festival given in his honor.

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