The Bacchae

by: Euripides

Symbols

Fawnskin

Fawnskins are the key garb for bacchic ritual, described as "the sacred cloak." It is the first item mentioned by both the two old men and by Pentheus when they decide to dress as bacchants. The mountain dancers strive to emulate the speed and freedom of the fawn. In Greek lyric poetry, the fawn was the traditional symbol for playfulness. The fawn also plays into the hunting motif, central to the play, embodying the paradigmatic quarry. As the chorus sings in Interlude III: "Shall I in night-long dances ever set white foot in bacchis celebration, hurling my throat to the dewy air of heaven, like a fawn playing in the green pleasures of a meadow, when it has escaped the terrifying hunt."

Hair

In Greek visual art and the lyrical poetry of the time, Dionysus was commonly depicted as being graceful, with effeminate features and long, flowing hair. As Pentheus is both drawn to and disgusted by the bacchic revelry, so is he fascinated and revolted by the Stranger's looks, especially the Stranger's hair. He comments upon the hair several times, and when asked what he would do to his prisoner, his immediate response is: "first I shall cut off your delicate locks," to which Dionysus responds, "my long hair is sacred; I am growing it for the god." This exchange proves a revelation, for while the Stranger could have been growing his hair as a promise to a god, as was common practice, his hair is long simply because he is the god himself. When their roles are reversed and Pentheus is imprisoned by Dionysus, they mention hair first. At that point, hair symbolizes Pentheus's weakness or femininity, as Dionysus chides Pentheus: "But this curl has fallen out of its proper place, not as I fixed it under the snood…well we whose care it is to look after you shall put it back in position; now hold your head straight." Dionysus's dominance over Pentheus is complete as he tucks the other man's hair into place in a moment not devoid of sexual overtones.

Bull

The bull is one of Dionysus's most common incarnations in Greek art and religious imagery. It expresses the god's power, leadership, virility, and his potency as a force of nature. The epithets used for him in cultic practice and in poetry often allude to his bullish form. Crucially, the shape of the god and his victim is sometimes the same, as in the case of the bull, often offered as a sacrifice in his honor. In the play, the maenads tear apart bulls in the frenzy of their sparagmos (the ritual dismemberment of animals) in the cowherd's speech. Pentheus, in particular, sees Dionysus in his bull-like form. When he thinks he is tying up the Stranger, he finds himself wrestling with a bull in the stables of the palace. Once he goes mad, he sees the Stranger as a bull.