Study Guide

The Bacchae Transformation

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"I am changed, of course, a god made man" (1)

There are lots of transformations that happen in The Bacchae. The first one happens before the play even begins. Dionysus has changed his appearance to that of a mortal. We wonder why he feels the need to do so. Couldn't he just show up all godly glory and start punishing the unbelievers? Maybe, he's testing them, or maybe he just likes messing with people. What do you think?

"Something very strange is happening in this town.
They tell me our womenfolk have left their homes
--in ecstasy if you please-- […]
dancing honor on this brash new god." (21)

King Pentheus is furious about the little transformation that Dionysus has performed on the women of Thebes. They've gone from submissive ladies, totally under his control, to wild women of the woods. It probably gets under his skin even more this wild group of women includes his mother and aunts.

"Face to face…he [himself] gave the rituals of possession." (41)

Here Dionysus, in disguise, hints to Pentheus of his frenzied rituals. When the spirit of Dionysus possesses people they are certainly transformed. The frenzy of the Bacchants bring them closer to their god.

"They carried fire on their flowing heads and it did not burn them.[…]
spearpoints drew no blood" (119)

The Maenads now seem to have undergone an even greater transformation. They started out as mild-mannered housewives. Then they were crazed worshipers. Now Dionysus has turned them into warrior women of almost god-like powers.

"We'll go inside and I'll dress you up myself."
"What kind of dress? A female's?" (152-153)

Dionysus's makeover session with King Pentheus is yet another example of transformation in The Bacchae. This one is pretty ironic to say the least. Just a little while ago Pentheus was busting on Dionysus for looking effeminate, now the King is the dressing like a woman.

"A thyrsus in your [Pentheus'] hand, and a spotted fawn skin on." (160)

Not only is Dionysus making Pentheus over as a woman, he's also dressing him up like a Bacchant. The thyrsus, an ivy covered staff, and fawn skin are key pieces to the uniform of your average worshiper of Dionysus. This part of the transformation is just as ironic women's clothing, as Pentheus has done nothing but resist and deny the spreading religion of Dionysus.

"Now I'd say your head was horned…
or were you an animal all the while?
For certainly you've changed…oh, into a bull." […]
Dionysus: "You see things as you ought." (178-179)

Though Pentheus speculates that the guy he thought was just a priest of Dionysus has changed into a bull, there's really been no transformation at all – at least on Dionysus' end. It's Pentheus's perception that has transformed. Now the King perceives Dionysus in one of his other forms a bull. Does this mean that gods exist in all their forms at once? As such, do they ever transform? When humans think they do, is it really just their perception that has shifted?

"The sins of jealousy and anger
made this Pentheus deal unjustly with one bringing blessings." (310)

Dionysus pronounces this as he appears at the end of the play no longer disguised as a mortal. He's appearing in his godly form to deal out judgment onto the mortals who've wronged him.

"As to you Cadmus,
you shall be changed into a snake." (310)

Part of Cadmus's fate is to be transformed into a snake. We wonder what the significance is of this specific animal. Could it be related to the snakes that the Maenads wrap in their hair?

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