An ancient Greek tragedy, The Bacchae portrays its protagonist, Dionysus, as a vindictive god with a particular inferiority complex. Dionysus is a god descended from Zeus and a mere mortal, and this ambiguity of origin-haunts him. Contrary to Dionysus, Oedipus in the tragedy Oedipus the King is a mere mortal whose goal is to escape a terrible prophecy. To become a free man and help the city of Thebes, Oedipus seeks divine guidance. Throughout ancient culture, people and gods were inextricably linked. Mortals prayed and worshipped their gods, and they, in turn, either rewarded or punished them. Dionysus is cruel and ferocious, sparing no effort to punish those who do not recognize his worship. The gods in Oedipus the King curse an entire city for the murder of King Laius by sending a plague on it. Thus, the gods are cruel to mortals, punishing them with diseases and cataclysms for any misdeeds, and Dionysus and deities in Oedipus the King prove this.
Dionysus, the god of winemaking, is often presented to modern people as a young, beautiful, and cheerful man, surrounded by his bacchantes. Despite this, Euripides and the ancient Greeks had a completely different idea of Dionysus. Dionysus is the son of Zeus and a mere mortal, which is reflected in his insecure character and a certain inferiority complex. In his play, Euripides shows all the cruelty and bloodthirstiness with which god treats mortals. First of all, this may be seen in the extraordinary arrogance of Dionysus and his desire to prove his divinity. The play begins with Dionysus arriving in the city of Thebes to avenge the rumors spread about him by his mother’s sisters (Euripides 10). They claimed Dionysus was not a god and that his mother had lied to everyone in the city, for which Zeus had killed her. Dionysus wants to teach the people of Thebes a lesson and show them what kind of god he is.
Dionysus hides behind the image of the wanderer and sends his bacchantes to the city. Thebes’ women suddenly break into the woods, begin to dance, and rejoice, which does not please either King Pentheus or his mother Agave. King Pentheus orders to catch Dionysus and put him in prison so that all this bacchanalia is over (Euripides 500). Dionysus is offended because mortals dared to oppose the will of God. Then, he plans revenge, sends an earthquake to the city of Thebes, and destroys the palace of Pentheus. Initially, Dionysus only planned to prove his divine origin to everyone in Thebes and bow down to his divinity. Then it is seen how Dionysus turns from the god of wine into a bloodthirsty creature who wants to punish all the mortals, which oppose him.
Under the spell cast upon her by Dionysus, Agave kills Pentheus, her son, tears him to pieces, and returns to the city with his head impaled on the thyrsus, rod of Dionysus. In the last scene, Dionysus appears and murders the unfortunate family of Pentheus. He turns Agave’s father into a dragon, makes his old wife a snake, and banishes Agave and her sisters from Thebes, as they have not yet been punished enough for their disrespect. Dionysus is cruel and ruthless towards people, thereby proving his divine superiority over them. For the gods of ancient Greece, and Dionysus in particular, people are not something important and meaningful. As long as mortals serve the gods faithfully and do not doubt their superiority, they are benevolent and merciful. The play of the Bacchante vividly shows a certain duality of the character of Dionysus. The god of wine and merriment is at one moment in ecstasy and another raging over innocent mortals.
Thus, Euripides presents what the relationship between gods and people may be. The deities are merciful and compassionate, and they bless those who believe in them. However, at the same time, the ancient Greek gods are cruel and vindictive, just like Dionysus. He is angry and offended because Pentheus and the people of Thebes doubted his divine origin, called him a liar, and imprisoned him. Blinded by his rage and resentment, Dionysus goes to extreme lengths to teach the Thebans a lesson. At the end of the play, people ask why Dionysus oppressed them without sparing anyone. Dionysus believes that mere mortals should not doubt their gods; otherwise, they will severely punish them (Euripides 1350). The image of Dionysus shows how cruel, narcissistic, and vindictive the ancient Greek gods were.
In the play Oedipus the King, Sophocles also reveals the nature of the relationship between gods and mortals. Deities are shown as unjust, unforgiving, and cruel at the very beginning of the play. The city of Thebes is falling: there is no harvest; cattle are dying, and children are born dead. The people of Thebes were sure that it was the gods who had sent these calamities to punish them (Sophocles 10). Despite this, Sophocles shows how people continue to pray to the god of healing, begging him to save them. Their dedication proves that no matter how cruel the ancient Greek gods were, mortals still relied on their mercy and compassion.
Oedipus first shows respect for the gods and their will when he sends Creon to Apollo’s oracle for advice. Apollo reveals the nature of divine distress and orders to find the king’s real killer as it was this crime that spoiled the relationship between the gods and mortals (Sophocles 130). Throughout the play, Oedipus turns to the gods’ help to find the king’s assassin and punish him. This proves the gods’ involvement in the mortal world, where humans try to serve them faithfully to avoid any terrible punishment. Oedipus becomes obsessed with finding the assassin and stopping the gods’ wrath, which proves the continuity of the divine and mortal lives.
Even though the gods are shown as cruel and unforgiving creatures in both tragedies, Sophocles allows looking at them from a different perspective. Dionysus punishes mortals for not believing in his divinity, doubts, and disrespect. The gods in Oedipus the King justify their cruel punishments with another goal: they seek justice. Their terrible punishment is directed at Thebes’ inhabitants to find the real killer of the king. That is why the ancient Greek people, despite the cruelty of the gods, believe in their justice. They believe themselves deserving any punishment sent down on them.
However, the desire to obtain justice cannot excuse the measures to which the Gods resort. Sending curses and punishments on innocent mortals proves once again their cruelty. Dionysus acts for his purposes: to punish all those who doubt him. He uses terrible methods, but the thirst for justice does not justify him. Dionysus wants to take revenge on the king and his mother, as well as all those who do not believe in his divinity. The gods of Oedipus the King, on the other hand, conceal their cruelty behind justice and greater intentions (Sophocles 30). In The Bacchae, mortals become disillusioned with Dionysus, seeing the lengths to which he is willing to go to punish the infidels and force them to accept his rule. In the case of Oedipus the King, people, even all punishments, remain faithful to the gods and continue to worship them.
Thus, both Euripides and Sophocles demonstrate the relationship between the ancient Greek gods and mere mortals. In the case of Dionysus, Euripides shows a certain ambiguity in his character. As the god of wine, Dionysus loves to indulge in fun and ecstasy with his faithful bacchantes. But at the same time, he is driven by an amazing narcissism and short temper, which makes him punish all those who are unfaithful to him. The fear of gods drives the relationship between deities and mortals. Just like Dionysus, deities in Oedipus the King do not spare mortals, sending one punishment after the other upon them. However, in Oedipus the King, people continued to pray to the gods for mercy and saw them as their defenders. Nevertheless, both plays demonstrate the relationship between deities and mortals as hierarchical relations. The gods stand above the people and rule them cruelly and mercilessly, sparing no one. Thus, Euripides and Sophocles prove all the cruelty and superiority of the gods over mere mortals.
Euripides. Bacchae. Translated by Robin Robertson, Harper Collins Publishers, 2014.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Translated by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay, Oxford University Press, 1978.