Study Guide

The Bacchae Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Euripides

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The City vs. the Wild

Euripides contrasts images of the natural world with the world of man throughout The Bacchae. All through the text, the playwright compares the walled city of Thebes with the wild landscapes that surround it. These two differing locations seem to be symbolic of the central conflict of the play. On the one side we have nature, which could represent untamed irrationality. On the other side we have the human-built city of Thebes, which could be seen as symbolic of ordered rationality.

We should also note that both Dionysus and Pentheus become symbolic of the environment they prefer. The god calls his followers out into the woods and mountains to engage in his wild rituals, while the King struggles to maintain order behind the walls of his solid stone city. Some scholars say that one of the main points of The Bacchae is to show the danger of man attempting to totally suppress natural forces. When Pentheus tries to imprison Dionysus, nature goes berserk. Lightning and earthquakes shake and ravage the King's carefully ordered city.

Man and Nature in Harmony

Nature isn't only depicted as a force of destruction in The Bacchae. Euripides also gives a quite a bit of imagery which could be seen as symbolic of the possible harmony between man and the wild. The Herdsman's report to King Pentheus is full of these kinds of images. He tells the King that "Some [Maenads] fondled young gazelles or untamed wolf cubs in their arms and fed them with their own milk" (119). This image of the women nurturing young animals seems to be symbolic of the possible union between humans and nature. The Herdsman goes on to say that, "Anyone who fancied liquid white to drink just scratched the soil with fingertips and got herself a jet of milk" (119). Here we see that the relationship can be reciprocal. Perhaps the point is that if we as human beings give to nature it will give back to us.

Animals

Animal imagery plays a big part in The Bacchae. For one, Euripides constantly summons the image of the fawn. Fawn skins were one of main pieces of attire for your average Bacchant. Early in the play we see Tiresias and Cadmus all decked out in their fawn skins as they go off to pay tribute to Dionysus. The fawn could be seen as symbolic of freedom and innocence. We hear the Chorus also express a longing to dance again like a "fawn at play in the green joy of a meadow," after it's escaped "the hallowing huntsman and his racing hounds" (171). This imagery also ties into the motif of hunting that's threaded throughout the play, and highlights the contrast of man and nature.

Another animal that pops up a lot in The Bacchae is the bull. One example is when the Herdsman and his buddies try to apprehend Agave and the other Maenads. This turns out to be a really bad idea, because the women go crazy and rip the men's cattle apart with their bare hands. The Herdsman laments that his "great lordly bulls" were "dragged to the ground like carcasses" (119). This kind of ritual dismemberment was often a part of Dionysian rituals, and is perhaps the reason that the bull became symbolic of the god. Dionysus even appears to the beguiled Pentheus as a bull before leading the King to be dismembered himself. Pentheus says, "Now I'd say your head was horned. […] for certainly you've changed – oh into a bull" (178). So, why would Dionysus choose to appear as an animal that he seemed to be a fan of dismembering? Your guess is as good as ours.