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Frogs of Aristophanes

The main protagonist in The Frogs is Dionysus, but Aristophanes shows us an altogether different side of the god than Euripides did in The Bacchae.  Euripides’ Dionysus is cryptic, subtle, rather scary, and tremendously powerful.  Aristophanes’ Dionysus, from the time he appears on stage in a ridiculous costume, is a bit of a buffoon.  On  one level this is simple caricature for comic effect; Aristophanes was fond of singling out and lampooning his audience members, and the god whose stature observed every performance had finally received his turn.  We need to keep in mind, however, that Dionysus, as the god of the theater, was actually Aristophanes’ patron deity.  Dionysus was god of comedy as well as tragedy, and Aristophanes’ portrayal actually captured one of the God’s aspects.  Drinking, sex, and humor were all part of the god’s ethos.  Even the costume, which combines a woman’s robes, a tragic actor’s shoes, and Heracles’ lion skin is appropriate for a god who was normally portrayed androgynously and was known for trickery and disguise.

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Dionysus’ mission is to descend into Hades to retrieve Euripides, as Athens no longer has any good tragic poets.  Presumably this task has fallen to him as god of theater.  We are also reminded of tradition of Orpheus in Hades, and the close association between the cults of Dionysus and Orpheus.

In many ways, The Frogs is Aristophanes’ eulogy for Euripides, who had died several months earlier.  Euripides was one of the favored targets for the comedian’s humor.  The Frogs is his way of showing that he actually had great respect for Euripides’ work.  After all, he didn’t write a play about Dionysus going after Sophocles, who had died a year earlier.

After various comic hijinks, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias arrive at Hades’ palace. There, they find that a contest is about to take place between Aeschylus and Euripides to determine which will be allowed to dine at Hades’ table.  Hades allows Dionysus to judge the contest.  Furthermore, he offers to let Dionysus take home the poet of his choice.  In the ensuing throw-down it becomes clear that, while Aeschylus is by far the better poet, Euripides is wittier and more accessible.  Aeschylus presents larger-than-life heroic characters, while Euripides presents relatable characters with real flaws and quirks.

In the end, somewhat surprisingly, Dionysus chooses to take Aeschylus.  Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War. The final defeat was a year or so off, but few citizens questioned that it was coming soon.  The people didn’t need wit, satire, and realism.  They needed beauty and elevation.  They needed to be reminded of the days when heroes walked and Athens was still great.  Aeschylus, not Euripides, was the man for the job.

The Frogs is a fantasy.  In real history, no tragic poet emerged who could match the talents of the “big three”.  While Greek tragedy continued to be performed for centuries, the art all but ceased to evolve after the passing of Sophocles and Euripides.  In late Hellenic times Euripides was easily the most popular playwright of the three, possibly because his language and themes seemed more “modern” to later readers.

Greek comedy remained viable for a longer time.  Aristophanes himself lived another twenty years, long enough to take part in the transition from old comedy to middle comedy and to see the new comedy on the horizon.  His son and others wrote in the new comedy, which stayed popular throughout the Macedonian period.

Greek Tragedy: The Bacchae of Euripides

Euripides wrote The Bacchae at the very end of his career and did not live long enough to see it produced.  In it he finally manages to achieve a happy balance between the classicism which bogged down the plots of some of his mid-career plays and the satire and social commentary that run through his earlier works.  The god in the play is an integral, developed character, not a stilted deus ex machina like Aphrodite in Hippolytus.

The Bacchae is fascinating partially because of its subject matter, Dionysus, whom Durant calls “the most troublesome, the most popular, the most difficult to classify of all Greek gods.”  Most of us have a passing acquaintance with Greco-Roman mythology, gained mainly from pop culture tropes inherited from Victorian writers.  If we know Dionysus at all, we probably picture him as the fat, tipsy Bacchus in Disney’s Fantasia.  After all, he’s just the god of wine.  How important can be be compared to the other Olympians?

The answer is, “incredibly important”.  Even though he was the last deity to be formally admitted to the Olympian pantheon, Dionysus was a popular god in the Greek world from Mycenaean times right up until the Christian domination of the Roman Empire.  He was a fertility god and, at times, an almost messiah-like figure who promised rebirth in the afterlife.  Unlike the other Olympians, who had been brought to Greece by conquerors and always maintained their associations with the ruling class, Dionysus was a god of the working class, women, and counter-cultures.  The cult of Dionysius played a similar role to later religions that originally evolved among oppressed minorities, such as Voodoo, Rastafarianism, and Primitive Christianity.  The orthodox elites were never able to stamp out Dionysianism, but they accepted its presence only grudgingly.  While it existed, though, it provided an important social “safety valve” for people who would otherwise have had little hope.

Dionysos [photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 via Wikimedia]

Dionysos [photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 via Wikimedia]

Many people have written about the parallels between the Dionysian cult (particularly its later off-shoot, the Cult of Orpheus) and Christianity.  Like Christ, Dionysus was the son of a father god (in this case Zeus) who had been killed and then rose from the dead.  Like Christians, Dionysians believed in a happy afterlife, in contrast to the usual Greek vision of a dim eternity as shades in Hades.  Much has been made of the importance of wine in both faiths, and of the superficial similarities between Dinonysus’ arrest and trial by Pentheus and Christ’s trial by Pilate.  All of these synchronicities are fairly cosmetic, however.  Christianity and Dionysianism had very different moral teachings and doctrines.  It is doubtful that Dionisianism influenced Christianity in any meaningful way.  They were simply two different faiths that occupied the same niche in different periods.  Many of the features that they have in common are also found in other mystery cults throughout the ecumene.

The primary mode of worship for the Dionysians was the bacchanal, in which groups of worshipers went into the country and made themselves incoherent with wild music and alcohol.  Usually, the climax of the bacchanal came when the bacchae tore a live animal apart with their bare hands, reenacting the god’s death at the hands of the Titans.  Usually the victim was a goat or bull, but it was not unknown for them to seize and kill innocent bystanders.

Euripides’ play is the story of Pentheus, king of Thebes.  Pentheus is worried about the growing influence of the Dionysian cult and has determined to suppress it.  He arrests a young man whom he believes to by a Dionysian rabble rouser, but who is actually an avatar of the god.  Dionysius has already determined to punish Pentheus for his impiety and make an example of him, thus removing any doubt about his god-head.  After giving Pentheus a chance to repent, Dionysius takes control of his mind, convincing him that it is a good idea to infiltrate the bacchae and spy on them, disguising himself as a maenad, or Dionysian priestess.

Dancing Maenad in a Roman relief [photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz, CC BY 2.0 via Wikime

Dancing Maenad [photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia]. The Maenadae were full-time priestesses of Dionysus who traveled the countryside leading bacchanalia.

Of course, the bacchae immediately notice Pentheus, helped by the fact that Dionysus has placed him in a tree for a better view.  They tear the tree down, then rend Pentheus limb from limb, led by Pentheus’ own mother, whom Dionysus has enchanted to believe she is fighting a wild animal.

The semiotics of this play are very rich, with each image connoting multiple levels of symbolism.  For example the scene where Dionysus helps Pentheus adjust his female clothing symbolizes not just how far he is in the God’s power, but probably also an inner jealousy of the bacchae and their freedom–on some level he wants to join in the bacchanal and forsake his kingly duties.  At the same time, it could be interpreted as Dionysus decorating and preparing a sacrifice.  It should also not be forgotten that the sacrifice in a bacchanal represents Dionysus himself.  On one level of meaning, he is helping Pentheus to be more Dionysus-like.  I’m sure you could find at least as many semiotic observations about the tree, the scene where Dionysus is bound and his hair is cut, the severed head of Pentheus, and many other symbols in the play.

When Euripides wrote The Bacchae, he was treating on a religious friction which still quite active in his day, even though the play is supposedly set in mythological times.  The cult of Dionysus was still quite active and making the ruling class uncomfortable.  Euripides was treading beyond the edge of political correctness to write a play about them, particularly one with such an ambiguous message.  Euripides, like most of the Athenian playwrights, was an educated man from an affluent citizen family.  If anything, we would expect him to denounce the cult.  He really doesn’t though.  What he does is create a work where the audience’s sympathies are divided between the two sides, and where the final message is open to multiple interpretations.  The Bacchae is “classic Euripides”, in every sense, the perfect play on which to end his career.