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Maenads, Women Followers of Dionysus

The first Maenads were the nymphs who had nursed the infant Dionysus. These are referenced at Homer Iliad, 6.130: “Nay, for even the son of Dryas, mighty Lycurgus, lived not long, seeing that he strove with heavenly gods—he that on a time drave down over the sacred mount of Nysa the nursing mothers of mad Dionysus; and they all let fall to the ground their wands, smitten with an ox-goad by man-slaying Lycurgus. But Dionysus fled, and plunged beneath the wave of the sea, and Thetis received him in her bosom, filled with dread, for mighty terror gat hold of him at the man’s threatenings. Then against Lycurgus did the gods that live at ease wax wroth, and the son of Cronos made him blind; and he lived not for long, seeing that he was hated of all the immortal gods.”

When he grew older he was able to convince these nymphs to join in a type of divine madness. Later he was able to convert women to this madness with estatic revelry and wine. The goal of this activity was not promiscuity and drunkeness, but rather insight and prophesy. Not everyone was capable of the goal and some fell into promiscuity and drunkeness because of their weakness.

Euripides in The Bacchae suggests that the first Maenads were the nurses of Zeus, line 120,

Hail thou, O Nurse of Zeus, O Caverened Haunt
  Where fierce arms clanged to guard God's cradle rare,
For thee of old some crested Corybant
         First woke in Cretan air
  The wild orb of our orgies,
  Our Timbrel; and thy gorges
Rang with this strain; and blended Phrygian chant
     And sweet keen pipes were there.

But of course the nurses of Zeus (The Corybants) were men.

The word ‘Maenad’, ‘μαινάς’ has its roots in the Indo-European culture that included ancestors of the Greeks. The name ‘Maenad’ means ‘mad woman’ from Indo-European ‘men-1’, ‘To think’ and relates to Greek words for madness. The second part of the word may relate to ‘dhes-‘ which has a religious context. This is consistent with their ability to prophesy. Mostly words based on ‘men-2’ have changed to ‘mn’ as in ‘mnemonic’ in Greek. So it is possible that ‘maenad’ is an older word in the Greek language. This is inconsistent with the idea that the cult of Dionysus came from Minoan Crete. Likewise the word ‘orgy’ seems to have Indo-European roots as well. The word ‘orgy’ means ‘frenzied action’ from Indo-European ‘werg-1’, ‘To do’ and ‘ya-‘, ‘To be aroused’ The wand that is associated with the maenads, the thyrsus, may also be Indo-European if it means ‘planting pole’ from Indo-European ‘dher-2′,’To hold firmly, support’ and ‘se-1’, ‘To sow’. But the name ‘Dionysus’ seems not to be Indo-European. In fact the meaning ‘twice born’ seems just a close approximation of the name. If ‘twice born were translated into Indo-European it would result in ‘Dwogenesis’ So what we have may be a Minoan cult that has been described in Indo-European terms. Maenads may also be referred to as Bacchantes, Bacchae, and Mimallones. These words do not seem to be Indo-European.

Actually there is very little reference in ancient literature
to the term ‘maenad’ so it seems mostly to be a term of convenience. The nymphs who nursed the infant Dionysus became the first Maenads. When he grew to manhood he was able to impart to these women a divine madness that they enhanced with wine. They would wander about in a drunken revel. They dressed in thin skimpy outfits or nothing at all. They carried thyrsus staffs and wore wreaths of ivy on their heads. They danced, played double flutes, or struck tambourines. As they wandered they picked up human converts who joined them. The worship included orgies of the male and female followers. They involved in various sexual activities not just to stimulate fertility of the earth but also to achieve ecstacy. Pan often bragged that he had sex with all the Maenads. The Maenads denied this and are often shown rejecting the advances of a satyr or Pan. They sometimes would achieve a frenzied state that was quite dangerous. In this state if they caught a wild animal or even a human they would tear it to pieces and then devour it.

One interesting reference to the Maenads is in Oedipus Tyrannus by Sophocles line 211,

οἰνῶπα Βάκχον εὔιον,
Μαινάδων ὁμόστολον
ruddy Bacchus to whom Bacchants cry

In this passage Sophocles mixes use of words for Bacchus and Maenads while the translator refuses to do so.

In Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, The phrase used is ” ἀεὶ Διόνυσος ἐμβατεύει θεαῖς ἀμφιπολῶν τιθήναις.” which is translated, “Here the reveller Dionysus ever walks the ground, companion of the nymphs that nursed him. This is an obvious reference to the original maenads who are here referred to as ‘θεαῖς’, ‘goddesses’.

Maenad dancingLEFT: Maenad dancing toward ecstasy on a beach in the moonlight

A thyrsus is a wand wreathed in ivy and vine-leaves with a pine cone at the top carried by the devotees of Dionysus. Most illustrations of it make it look more like a staff than a wand. A fawn skin or feline skin and ecstatic dance are other characteristics of Maenads. These symbols suggest the meaning of the activity of the maenads. The pinecone tipped staff is a phallic symbol that indicates the fertility nature of the rite. Like other evergreens, the ivy symbolizes eternal life and resurrection. The vine-leaves refer to wine and its effects.

We can assume that the nymphs who attend Dionysus are permanent participants in Dionysian revels along with the silenoi. But it seems that temporary converts also participated. The worship of Dionysus is often described as an orgy. It begins with music, dancing, and drinking of wine. As the activity becomes more intense, inhibitions and clothing are loosened and discarded. A heightened mental and emotional state is achieved during which new ideas appear and insights are gained into one’s place in the cosmos. This feeling is the ecstasy that is the stated goal of the activity. Since sexual intercourse is also accompanied by such feelings it is thought to be appropriate also. The nymphs who are present can participate in these activities without fear of consequences because any pregnancy that results is intentional and part of some divine plan. But mortal women who participate may acquire an unintended pregnancy. This was a special concern for ancient Greek men because the paternity of the baby was impossible to establish in the context of an orgy where the female might have a number of sexual partners. The unfortunate result was that these babies might end up exposed or sold into slavery.


OrgyLEFT: Dionysian Orgy

The activity of the Maenads seems to relate to the religion of the Minoan culture. It may be that they have their origin as priestesses of that culture. The art of that culture has been shown to demonstrate a concern for the continuity of life. The rending of animals is an expression of that continuity. It was believed that the rending released the life force of the animal in a way that allowed it to be absorbed by the worshiper when the raw flesh of the victim was eaten by the worshipper. Dionysus can be identified with the bull of Minoan religion and the Minotaur of Greek Myth. A consistent interpretation of the Minotaur myth is that he rent his victims when he devoured them. The Maenads can be related to priestesses who danced before the victims in a way that would excite the bull to rend them by goring and tossing them. The bull was then, himself sacrificed by the priestesses in an attempt to bring the life force of the bull upon them. It should be noted that bulls are much more capable of rending their victims than Maenads would be.

The Minoan religious worship seems to place a strong emphasis on the witness of epiphany. Both the dancing, the wine, and the sexual activity may have been carried out to stimulate an epiphany. These have certainly been used by other cultures for this purpose. Such an event may have been important to certify that the Minoan people had received the favor of their deities.

Ariadne is not usually condsidered a maenad yet she definately participates in maenad-like activities. Homer, in the Iliad makes a reference to Ariadne when he describes the Shield of Achilles (Book XVIII): “Furthermore he wrought a green, like that which Daedalus once made in Cnossus for lovely Ariadne. Hereon there danced youths and maidens whom all would woo, with their hands on one another’s wrists. The maidens wore robes of light linen, and the youths well-woven shirts that were slightly oiled. The girls were crowned with garlands, while the young men had daggers of gold that hung by silver baldrics; sometimes they would dance deftly in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will run, and sometimes they would go all in line with one another, and much people was gathered joyously about the green. There was a bard also to sing to them and play his lyre, while two tumblers went about performing in the midst of them when the man struck up with his tune.” This scene can be compared to that of a symposium as illustrated on Greek vases. In the symposium the women are dancing and singing for entertainment. Ariadne probably performed without wine while the men drank wine in the symposium. Wine might have been given to the women so they would dance in in a more wild manner. Ariadne performed in the day while the symposium was held at night when the orgies were supposedly held.

Hesiod does not mention maenads but he does connect Dionysus and Ariadne, Theogony, line 947 “Golden-haired Dionynus made blonde Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, his vigorus wife; Cronus’ son made her immortal and ageless for his sake.” In the Works and Days, line 614 of wine Hesiod says, “the gift of much-cheering Dionysus”.

Homer uses the word for maenad in the Iliad to describe Andromache and her waiting maids when they learn of Hector’s death, “ὣς φαμένη μεγάροιο διέσσυτο μαινάδι* ἴση” line 460. This may be the earliest use of the term but this is not a use consistent with the worship of Dionysus. Hesiod and Homer may have been familiar with the worship of Dionysus and they use terms that relate to aspects of that worship. But the descripition of Maenads in the context in which they are familiar must await Euripides.

The information presented here supports the idea that the worship of Dionysus has its roots in the Minoan Religion. This may conflict the general notion that the religion of Minoa was goddess oriented. Even the worship of the bull is thought to relate to the fact that a physical vagina resembles the head of a bull. What seems more likely is that the priestesses in the Minoan culture were very important but that the deities may have been of both sexes. It seems that when Theseus went to Minoa he stopped the practice of human sacrifice, but he did not destroy the deities. He seems to have brought back to Athens the worship of Athena, Aphrodite, Hera, and Artemis. One wonders how they could be interpreted as Maenads, but they could have danced their way into the heart of Theseus.

The worship that the Maenads exhibit can be explored further. The belief that rent animals give up a life force is quite similar to the notions of sacrifice and sacrament. It is identical to the acquisition of manna. Christians and others rejected this practice on theological grounds. But today persons who may reject Christianity and are seeking other alternatives cannot explore rending as a theological alternative. Modern science has revealed that the eating of raw flesh often involves the ingestion of parasites that can be quite harmful. Descartes came up with a philosophy in the 17th Century treating animals as automatons that would have approved of rending animals. Now it is no longer felt to be a humane treatment of animals.

The description of Meanads by Euripides in his Bacchae is an extreme portrayal that plays on the fear of the Athenian male that women are basically uncontrolable. In this play Dionysus has forced the women of Thebes to become Maenads as he says,

"Yea, I have bound upon the necks of them
The harness of my rites. And them all
The seed of womankind from hut and hall
Of Thebes, hath this my magic goaded out."

Eventually the maenads rend Pentheus. But it is not a physical act as Euripides states,

Round his left arm she put
Both hands, set hard against his side her foot,
Drew...and the shouldered severed!--Not by might
Of arm, but easily, as the God made light
Her hand's essay.

So this cannot be a model for regular practice. It strikes me that the lightning strike of Semele would allow her body to be rent easily. This would be another option to the rending of the victim by the bull mentioned earlier.

In the Eumenides of Aeschylus there is line 24: “Βρόμιος ἔχει τὸν χῶρον, οὐδ᾽ ἀμνημονῶ, [25] ἐξ οὗτε Βάκχαις ἐστρατήγησεν θεός, λαγὼ δίκην Πενθεῖ καταρράψας μόρον:” Translated as “Bromius has held the region —I do not forget him— ever since he, as a god, led the Bacchantes in war, [25] and contrived for Pentheus death as of a hunted hare.” This passage is interesting because it uses the word ‘Βάκχαις’ and references the Maenads as a martial group led by the god. Whether the Maenads here are divine or mortal is not clear.

Lyssa’s name means “canine madness,” and she is the Greek underworld goddess who drove her dogs through the world proding the divine intoxication of the Maenads to destructive fury. She is the daughter of Nyx.

Recently Dionysus has been compared to Johnny Appleseed. At Click here reviews Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire. He says “Chapman, Pollan argues, was America’s Dionysus:
‘Like Johnny Appleseed, Dionysus was a figure of the fluid margins, slipping back and forth between the realms of wildness and civilization, man and woman, man and god, beast and man…. a figure able to dissolve all the rigid and hostile barriers between nature and culture.’ ” He goes on to say, “Barefoot, clad in robes, never having a permanent address during his entire adult life – he was a roving woodland spirit who roamed the early frontier. He may also have married a child bride, and was known to harbor some wild-eyed Swedenborgian religious ideals in many ways closer to a pantheistic naturism than to Protestant Christianity.” The idea of an emphasis on wild nature is good. But Dionysus was not a preacher. Any message spoken by the god was revealed in drama. Yet the idea of a religious event that inspires madness is a good one. On the western frontier many an evangelist witnessed speaking in tongues, a form of divine madness. Even today some people look to this type of speech for prophecy as was done in an ancient Greek orgy. It may be that this is the type of religious excess that Euripides deals with in his horrifying drama The Bacchae. Such divine madness may reference original ideas relevant to the time but these ideas need more careful consideration. Divine madness taken as truth is a horrifying mistake, as the Muslim extremists easily demontrate when they are suicide bombers. In The Bacchae Euripides does confirm the importance of ,religion, but he also cautions about religion taken to such an extreme. Muslim suicide bombers cannot be considered a condemnation of Islam. Rather they are just the example of extreme religiosity that Euripides was warning us about. Prophesy itself may be a religious extreme if taken on faith. Rather the validity of it must be sought in other areas. The vision of dancing Maenads is seductive. But without a great deal of control the promise of their dance will collapse into a morass of evil and guilt.

There is a plain reference to maenad activity in the story of the daughters of Proteus in Apollodorus, Library 2.2. In Bacchylides, Epinicians Ode 11 the madness is attributed to Hera. In Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.18.7 the cure of the madness is with Artemis. In Herodotus, The Histories 2.49, Melampus, the person who cured the daughters of Proteus of their madness, is plainly associated with the worship of Dionysus. At Apollodorus, Library 1.9.12 he says: “but when Dionysus drove the women of Argos mad, he healed them on condition of receiving part of the kingdom,”. Now this seems to refer to the daughters of Proteus also.

Possible names of Maenads:

  • Ino
  • Athamas
  • Philia, Coronis, and Cleis, in Naxos
  • Mystis
  • Hippa
  • Macris
  • Antiope
  • Agave
  • Autonoe

“The tombstone of Alcmeionis, chief maenad in Miletus around 200 BCE announces that she knows her share of the blessings’– a veiled reference to her eschatalogical hopes.” p. 173 Price and Kearns Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, Reference

Victims of Maenads

  • Ariadne — Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and saved him from the Minotaur. But Ariadne was the sister of the Minotaur and may have been betrothed to him. Theseau took Ariadne from Crete but abandoned her on Naxos on his way home. He may have thrown her overboard at Athena’s insistence. When she arrived on Naxos she probably was stripped of her clothing and identity by her ordeal in the water. She was probably in despair from her abandonment when she found and orgy in progress on Naxos. These Maenads were trying to resurrect the dead god Dionysus. Ariadne could have been the very sacrifice they needed to bring Dionysus to life. When she washed up on the shore of Naxos she was nude and disoriented from her ordeal and ready to sacrifice. She was the perfect sacrifice victim because to the Meanads she had no identity and no status yet they could see that she was young and beautiful and a perfect gift for the god. And her despair made her a willing victim. Little did they know that she had already been betrothed to the Minotaur who was the same as Dionysus. Nor did they probably know that it was she that had brought about the death of their god. So in fact they sacrificed Ariadne, his betrothed bride, to Dionysus. This is a perfect story of satrifice as betrothal that is met with Iphigenia and Polyxenia. When he came to life she was apotheosized for her sacrifice and became his bride in heaven. Though this story is only suggested by the literature, still it fits what seems to be the mentality of the time. In this context her story fits a classic tragedy with her life a struggle against overwheming odds and her final apotheosis. The beauty of the story inpired many works of art in ancient times.
  • Pentheus — King of Thebes. The Drama by Euripides Bacchae details his fate at the hands of the Maenads.
  • Orpheus — his death at the hands of Maenads is detailed in the now lost drama of Aeschylus Bassarae. It is said that this death began the orgies of the Maenads but this must have occurred later than the orgy involving Ariadne.

Pictures from Ancient Greek Vases:

Maenads, Women Followers of Dionysus

Questions and Answers

Question: Anyway, there is a character in my favorite TV show True Blood whose a maenad. This particular character also appeared in the series the TV show is based on. I was wondering what powers/abilities do maenads possesse?

Answer: Maenads are merely female participants in an orgy, a religious ceremony for Dionysus. There are two types of participants, nymphs and mortals. The nymphs have all the powers of goddesses depending upon their realms. These nymphs are most likely “Children … of the springs and groves, and of the sacred rivers that flow forth to the sea,…” as are the handmaids of Circe. Their powers are limited but they are still immortal goddesses. The powers of the mortal women are different. The main power of interest is the power of prophesy. Prophesy is desired to predict the future of men to make their lives easier. The ritual involves wine and inebriation and dancing. The dancing and wine produce a state of ecstacy that is hoped to produce the prophecy. There is reported a magnified strength also. The ritual involves a rending of animals that proves the existance of this strength and may prove the existence of the ecstacy. Though sexual activity is associated with orgies, for mortal women the situation seems a test of their resolve. Enduring the ceremony is a test of their virture. Those that become pregnant have failed this test.

The nymphs may participate in the dancing and sexual activity but inebriation is not a factor of their participation. Nor is the prophesy. As immortal goddesses they are all knowing. Zeus prevents their revealing any knowledge except in crypted form. I suppose dancing nymphs could function as muses at the ceremonies. Unlike the mortal women they have no fear of pregnancy as immortal births are the result of a rational plan.