Euripides and the Fall of Athens

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The self-destruction that faces the entire human race in our own time faced the Greeks in classical times, but on a smaller scale, the bowl of the Mediterranean. The bones of marvellous cities are still scattered around that inward sea, and behind them are the barren hills and valleys where rain once fell, trees grew and corn was harvested as splendid as the cities it fed. Man’s first essays in self-destruction were made in the Mediterranean, and the agent was always war. My subject is war. In a single sea-battle a whole forest could sink to the bottom, and their battles were constant. The peculiar genius of Greece provided that a great poet and psychologist was watching it all, the playwright Euripides, whose life, exactly spanned the period when the lure of empire whispered into the Athenian ear, and the possibility of winning the whole known world drove them mad. Euripides’ theatre, like ritual, worked by making people feel. The main organ of consciousness in the human psyche, is the heart, though we have located it in the intellect for twenty-five centuries, which is probably why it had advanced so little in that time, except technologically. At the Festival of Dionysus, poetry and theatre merged into each other. It was a great institution for consciousness-making, perhaps the greatest in any human culture ever. But a spirit was moving in Athens which was stronger yet. It was intellect and it was war. Athens at this time was in continuous war with the other great power in the Aegean, Sparta. It started in 430BC and continued for 30 years, in spite of many chances of for ending it, leading to a defeat total as any in history, the confiscation of the fleet, the dismantling of the famous Long Walls that stretched all the way to the Piraeus, and the installation of a foreign backed government. Only narrowly did it escape the fate it had dealt out to others: the destruction of its marvellous buildings, the slaughter of the men of military age and the sale into slavery of the rest. Of the league of allies gathered against her, Corinth and Thebes voted for that, but Sparta did not wanted to go so far. So a recovery followed as quick and remarkable as Germany’s after 1945, with imperial ambitions abandoned and the real work of civilisation still ahead: . . The war one of the greatest periods of human creativity ever. The war had been an act of self-destruction so powerful that the individual consciousness was sucked into it and simply devoured—except where it was exceptionally strong. There are always some who are, but the pattern has been repeated in our culture ever since the coming of what we call patriarchy.

Another of the same stature as Euripides was the historian Thucydides, to whom we owe everything that we know of the political side of the war. He saw the disaster happening, but first of all in the language.‘To fit in,’ he wrote, ‘with the turn of events, words had to change their meaning. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect in a party member. To think of the future and wait, was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character. the ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.’ (Book III, para. 82). Things fall apart, said Yeats. The centre cannot hold…Mere anarchy is leased upon the world . And then those famous words; The best lack all conviction while the worst, Are full of passionate intensity. The phenomenon of The Party dominated the last century, the great collectivities of Nazism and Marx; and it was such a time in Athens.

Half way through the war, came a very great crime, and that seems to be part of the pattern of self-destruction. It was the sacking of the small island state of Melos for no offence except not joining the war. At the meeting between the two side which preceded it, the Melians said they had been independent for a thousand years; it was not their war and they were not about to join it. The Athenians said simply:

As far as right and wrong are concerned, the Athenians think there is no difference between the two, and that those states who still preserve their independence do so because they are strong, and that if we fail to attack them it is because we are afraid…Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that in obedience to an irresistible instinct, they rule wherever they can. We neither enacted this law, nor were the first to carry it out . we merely avail ourselves of it, as you would yourselves in our place.’ Thucydides (Book V, para 85)

‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.’ The destruction of Melos happened at the height of the Athenian empire. One year after Euripides put it on stage, . He did not call it Melos. He went for the event behind the whole Greek culture, the mythic destruction of a great city. The play was called The Women of Troy, and opened with the great god Poseidon grieving for the city which he himself, he says, had built, ‘squared every stone of it’. Civilisation means City, theLatin civitas, and was itself sacred for the Greeks. The god mourns for the city, and the play cuts instantly to a small group of women awaiting the ships which will take them to their new owners. Their husbands and sons are dead, their daughters bound, like them for the beds of conquerors; and the city which was their home is burning. One of them is the great queen Hecuba herself.

Euripides is saying: ‘This is the reality of your glory; and he spares them nothing. Imagine ourselves on those stone seats beneath the Acropolis, in a state of desperate warfare, waiting for the latest offering of the poet. We are ordinary, patriotic, right-thinking people, of moderate intelligence, moderate sensibility. Some of us are uneasy about the crime last year of Melos, but not many. And we hear that the City is sacred and that the meaning of our whole culture is sacrilege. When Poseidon plots his revenge, where can it fall except on us? The theme of sacrilege swells as the play proceeds. The Trojan princess Cassandra, vowed to virginity in the temple of our own Athene, is dragged off to the bed of our own High King, Agamemnon. Our connection to our own sacred ground is broken.

What has gone from this culture is that mysterious thing called Ethos. Ethos is the spirit of life. The healthy plant has Ethos, and so does the healthy human life, but the Ethos of this culture has gone. Perhaps we are women, sitting there, and we hear that the infant son of Hector is to be killed lest he grow up to avenge his father. It was the same argument that Himmler deployed at the lakeside conference at which the Final Solution was announced to the generals. The Jewish children must be killed with their parents, or they would grow up to avenge them. In the way of archetypal crimes, it appears in Shakespeare’s treatment of the same subject. Macbeth, too, has lost his Ethos. Fleance must die with Banquo, says Macbeth, else the snake is only scotched, not killed. It will close and be itself. Euripides spares us nothing: the broken little body put into the arms of his grandmother, since his mother has already far away. ‘Poor little head!’, she weeps:

Your soft curls were a garden where your mother planted kisses . . .
Now the blood shines through the shattered skull. (p. 128, l. 1176)

She goes on to speak of that central act of piety, the burial of ancestors,
You made a promise once, nestled against my dress.
‘Grandmother, when you die,’ you said, ‘I will cut off a curl of my hair for you, and bring my friends, and grace your tomb with gifts and holy words.’
‘You broke your promise, son; instead I bury you.’ (p. 128, l. 1184)

The meaningful order of this civilisation is upturned, the interplay between generations, the harmonious dance of life and death. That, says Euripides, is what your patriotic myth actually means. Can’t you see, he says, Can’t you see?.

And indeed, as the play went on stage, Athens was preparing for another such expedition, on a much larger scale, for whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Throughout the city every man, ship, and piece of gold was being called in for a great armada against Syracuse. Thucydides records that debate too, held before the fleet sailed. The arguments in favour was presented by a popular character called Alkibiades. It was the argument of the pre-emptive strike. Syracuse might one day attack Athens, so Athens must strike first. If they made an example of Syracuse, the Greek colonies in Sicily and Southern Italy would join them, from fear. All together they would cross the Mediterranean and deal with Carthage, the great power in that part of the world. After that they would return to the Aegean and it would be the turn of Sparta. Then the wealth of all the world would pour, as tributes, into Athens.

Nicias, the general who would to be in charge if it happened, thought it impractical. . Everything depended on the first premise, the conquest of Syracuse, and that was far from certain. The Syracusans would be fighting with desperation on their own ground. The Athenians would be well beyond help from home, and if they failed, Athens would be stripped of men and resources and with no friends left in the world. The vote went to Alkibiades, and the expedition was simply lost. Nicias himself died. Alkibiades did not die: other adventures still lay before him. Yet the quarries from which Syracuse had been built filled up with Athenians, and no one knew how to feed them or bury them when they died. Scarcely a man got home. Archetypally it was parallel to Napoleon’s plunge into Russia, and Hitler’s a century later. The vast reaches of the Russian winter were a natural magnet for any over-powerful tyrant in Europe. Even the salt mines in which so many of Hitler’s men ended their lives were eerily like the quarries in which the Athenians ended theirs. Euripides, however, became the most unpopular man in Athens. For at what point does the audience of ordinary patriotic people, of moderate intelligence, moderate sensibility, begin to shout, ‘Euripides is a traitor’?

His last two plays were written in exile and performed after his death. If The Women of Troy is still the greatest anti-war document in any literature, the two plays performed after his death went straight to the psychological roots. One is Iphigenia in Aulis which concerns the sacrifice of the general’s daughter so that the fleet could sail to Troy. The last of all was The Bacchae, in which a king is torn to pieces by…women.

Iphigenia in Aulis

When the play opens we are at Aulis, the port opposite Troy. The great expedition is gathered there, thousands of men hungry for loot and wanting to get on with the war or go home for the harvest. But there is no wind: it is any general’s nightmare. The High Priest says there will be no wind until Agamemnon has sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia—who is of course the symbol of what must be sacrificed, if Troy is to be destroyed.

Agamemnon himself sits on a stage empty except for a table and a lamp, scribbling a letter, crossing it out, pacing up and down, weeping, returning to his letter. He calls a slave, and an old man comes on stage. What’s his master up to now? he wonders.: this agitation, these tears, this pacing up and down? And Agamemnon tells him the whole story, and tells it to us—tells of the suitors for Helen, the most desirable woman in the world (it was said), and of the pact her suitors made—that whoever was chosen would have the support of all the others in keeping her. He tells of the choice falling on Menelaus, his brother, and then of the Paris, the Trojan prince to whom appear three goddesses, asking him to choose between them—that is, to judge which represents the greatest value. There is Athene, the patron of the State; there is Hera, patron of home, peace, and family; and there is Aphrodite, who is that great mystery of beauty. Paris chooses her, and she promises him the most beautiful woman in the world, for himself.. She happens to be in the home of the Greek Menelaus, but, says Aphrodite cheerfully, no matter!

So Paris sets off for Greece—‘seductive, perfumed, barbarous,’ as Agamemnon describes him—and returns with the unresisting Helen. The Greek lords, answering the call, and not averse to the plunder of a great city, gather. And he, Agamemnon, has accepted the position of general and called his daughter to Aulis on the pretext of being married to Achilles—when what is actually planned is her death. The old man, who is but a slave, says simply, ‘It’s wrong! Stop it at any cost. Give me that letter quick and I will take it for you.’ And Agamemnon is persuaded, completes the letter he was writing and gives it to the old man with instructions to stop any carriage coming toward him that may contain the happy and excited bride.

Then the Chorus enters, and the plot thickens greatly. For these are women, and they are as enamoured of the war as any man. They tell of the great fleet lying at anchor, and of their delight in counting the ships, spying out the squadrons and the famous warriors at their heads. ‘What a sight beyond description!’ they say, ‘And how women’s eyes love looking! We looked and looked, gorging on honey.’

Let’s imagine it in our own terms: a naval review at Spithead at the height of empire, with another just across the water at Keil, where the Kaiser is building up his own great fleet to make the challenge: battleships, cruisers, destroyers, corvettes, frigates, stretched in long lines; the royal yachts passing up and down, sailors cheering, pennants fluttering; and women lining the shore—lace shawls, silk parasols, big hats, excited chatter. They count the ships, mark the pennants, Admiral Lord this, Admiral Sir Somebody that, gold braid, medals, cocked hats; and always the women, beautiful, excited, admiring.

Then, from the Chorus of women, cut back to the messenger; and, lo, he has been caught by Menelaus, who has read the letter and is enraged that his brother could refuse the sacrifice which will take them all to Troy. And Iphigenia is still on her way to the real meaning of all this pageantry—death, torched homes, torn entrails, rape.

The play pursues its way with argument, counter argument. Menelaus changes, sees the absurdity of trading a loving daughter for an unfaithful wife; feels suddenly what it is, he says, to kill one’s child. Briefly he is having a moment of consciousness. Achilles, himself, the bait that brings her here, swears now to defend her. But the archetype which is moving is stronger than any consciousness. The great mass of soldiers are hungry for loot; the whole camp cries out for war, and is beyond any scruple about a girl. Even the great Achilles is threatened by his own men. At this point, with every path blocked, Iphigenia takes her fate into her own hands and resolves to die.

The masterpiece of Euripides’ psychology at this point, is that she takes on the very value system that condemns her. She becomes herself possessed by the terrible power of the One, the spirit of Father and Fatherland, accepting the sacrifice of all that she herself is. As we have seen with the women’s admiration of the great fleet, she may not have been far from it anyway. Now she wants to be as good as any man and give her blood for Hellas. All the shop-soiled platitudes of patriotism drop one by one from her mouth. One man is worth a host of women, for he can die for Hellas. The contra-sexual element in the unconscious rises up, and overwhelms her. This is Euripides at his psychological best. She will die so that Greek women will be raped no more! She will die for ‘freedom!’ She will set Hellas ‘free!’ She was not born for herself but for Hellas. She has performed the projection of Self onto the symbols of race and State that will mark Western culture through to our own time. At last comes the vulgar, brain-splitting fantasy: ‘Greeks were born to rule barbarians, Mother’, she says, ‘not barbarians to rule Greeks. They are slaves by nature; we have freedom in our blood.’ (p.419, l. 1399). When the knife falls and the blood pours down into the earth, it is no more than the confirmation of what has already occurred in Iphigenia’s psyche.

This is where the play, from its own inner dynamic, would end. But Euripides’ son found the manuscript in Macedonia after his father’s death, without, it seemed, an ending. So he wrote one himself. This was a not-unusual procedure, also in Shakespear’s time. But in this ending, like the sacrifice of Isaac in the Hebrew scripture, there is no sacrifice: an animal is substituted instead. In this way there can be a happy ending and they can all set off for Troy to bring back honour and splendid loot, while Iphigenia herself is carried off to serve in the temple of Artemis—Artemis, who has been transformed from her original form, a goddess of Nature who cares for little animals, into a hungry goddess of war, demanding sacrifice. .

Dread goddess, they sing to her in this version, , bring our army
Safe to the plains of Phrygia
And grant that Agamemnon,
With Hellene spears to aid him,
May crown his head with glory,
And by his victory win undying fame. (p. 423 l. 1523)

We cannot be sure of anything at this distance of time, but we cannot imagine an ending less Euripidean than this. The same problem of the ending arises in The Bacchae, which is the last play—and I must say in every performance of Euripides I have seen in the modern theatre. There has been no change, and the obviously tampered-with ending remains unchallenged..


From the catastrophes of Troy and Melos, Euripides moves into an inner dimension. More even than his other plays, The Bacchae must be treated psychologically—with its central image, the king’s head torn off by his mother as a metaphor for the psychosis that can seize a man if he offends, in any profound sense, Nature. Shakespeare uses a similar image of Mother to describe the downfall of King Lear, who quite bizarrely calls his own descent into madness by the name of mother.

‘O, how this mother swells up towards my heart!’ ‘Hysterico passio—down, thou climbing sorrow…I prithee, Daughter, do not make me mad . . . .
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter
Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine.’ (Act 2 Scene 4)

The natural content of the feminine in Nature is for him a disease that’s in his flesh. He is like Yahweh, the all male creator, with this disease that is in his flesh. And when he finally knows that he will become mad, he knows that it is because he cannot bend, cannot stain his ‘manly cheeks with womanish tears. ‘Or e’er I’ll weep, he says, this heart will break into a hundred thousand flaws’. ’ He is held in the great curse of the One.. Ultimately, in Cordelia, he is reconciled with the feminine, but only in death. It is so with Pentheus, the great king of The Bacchae.

The play opens on the royal palace in Thebes. At one side of the stage is the monument to Semele. Above it burns a low flame, and around it are the remains of ruined and blackened masonry. Dionysus comes on stage. He has a crown of ivy on his head, a fawn-skin draped over his body, long, flowing hair and a youthful, almost feminine beauty. In his hand is the thyrsus, a stick which ends in the multiple seeds of the pine-cone and represented, for the Greeks, the phallus. He is feminine and also male. He sets the scene and tells the story.

Semele was his mother. She was one of the three daughters of Cadmus, who was first king and founder of Thebes. Zeus came to her by night, quite often it seems, but warned her that she must never ask to see him. Her sisters mocked her when she told them. They said it was an ordinary lustful man, andif she became pregnant they would all be shamed. Driven by their taunts she asks one night to see him, naked as Hera sees him, and is incinerated by the sight. These blackened walls are what are left of her house; and Dionysus, the child of that divine love, has come back to avenge her.

Seeing is a continuous theme in Euripides. It stands for a certain sort of consciousness, that of the ego. If there is too great an inrush into it, its boundaries break and there is a psychosis. That is what happened to Semele; and at the end of the play, as we sall see, it is the sight of the maenads sporting on the mountain that will break the boundaries of the king. That is why Zeus, in myth, comes generally in the dark, or as an animal or bird: veiled in his godhead.

Zeus takes the child from the burning womb and tucks it away in his thigh, where it will be hidden until its time comes. And now that time has come, and the child born from the divine fire is come into the world..

He goes on with the story. Pentheus, son of Agave, one of the sisters, is now king. He has heard of Dionysus as a divine cousin but calls him a bastard and leaves him out of all religious rites. Cadmus, the old ex-king, loyally tends his daughter’s shrine but now her son himself has appeared. And his very presence has turned the sisters seemingly mad but just returned to Nature, driven them onto the mountains,, and with them all the women of Thebes. A great inrush of consciousness has come not on an individual alone, but the whole city; and its walls cannot contain it.

Their home is now the mountain;
. . . one and all
Sit roofless on the rocks under the silver pines.
For I must show myself before the human race
As the divine son whom she bore to immortal Zeus. (p 192, l.35-)

The city is womanless—no one to cook the food or look after the children. Like the coming of Christ in the Gospels, this coming is an epiphania, a showing of the god; which has that intense reality which judges the quality of our own reality, simply by its proximity. Dionysus leaves the stage, and as he does so the Chorus enter. They are the women of the city, fresh from the mountain. For them the encounter with the god has been a reinforcement, a strengthening of what is deepest in their nature.

O Thebes, they sing, old nurse that cradled Semele,
Be ivy-garlanded, burst into flower . . .
Bring sprays of fir, green branches torn from oaks,
Fill soul and flesh with Bacchus’s mystic power . . .
There’s a brute wildness in the fennel-wand. Reverence it well.

In Aeschylus, the fennel-stalk is used by Prometheus to carry fire to men. Fennel stalks have been used like that, probably since Stone Age times. The fire slumbers in the pith and bursts into flame when whirled in the air. It was used in this way in the midnight revels of Dionysus, and symbolised a particular sort of consciousness but not that of the ego. It was that of the pith and the marrow, the light that glows in animals’ eyes (Tyger, tyger burning bright) the light of Dionysus.

O what delight is on the mountains!
There the celebrant wrapped in his sacred fawnskin
Flings himself on the ground surrendered,
While the swift-footed company streams on;
There he hunts for blood and rapturously
Eats the raw flesh of the slaughtered goat.
Hurrying on to the mountain heights,
Possessed, ecstatic, he leads their happy cries;
The earth flows with milk, flows with wine,
Flows with nectar of bees;
The air is thick with the scent of Syrian myrrh . . .
And like the foal with its mother at pasture
Runs and leaps for joy every daughter of Bacchus. (p. 196 l 138-)

Civilised meat is wrapped up so as to be almost unrecognisable. The meat of Dionysus is not essentially different to the other forms of nourishment in Nature—which is, in this sense, all Eucharist, all body of the god.

At this point we have reached the fiery centre of the play; now it is time for a little light relief. Two old men shuffle onto the stage, clad in fawn-skins and carrying the thyrsus. They are Cadmus, the founder, and Tiresias, the great shaman of Greek myth, Eliot’s ‘old man with wrinkled female dugs’, who

sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.

Both have sensed the spirit moving in the city, and are off to join the dance. Cadmus stamps about, like a happy child, beating his thyrsus on the ground:

I could drum the ground all night,
And all day too, without being tired. What joy it is
To forget one’s age! (p.197, l. 180),

To which Tiresias answers,

I feel exactly the same way, bursting with youth!

This is not biological youth; it is the Ethos, the spirit of Dionysus himself, eternal. Now they are on foot (it would be dishonourable, they say, to go in a cart); and as they move off-stage, the young king stumbles onto it, ‘extremely agitated.’ ” He addresses himself directly to us, the audience:

I happen to have been away from Thebes; reports
of this astounding scandal have just been brought to me.
Our women, it seems, have left their homes on some pretence
of Bacchic worship and are now gadding about
on the wooded mountain-slopes, dancing in honour of
this upstart god Dionysus…

Then comes the prurient fantasy that is itself the fire, and will later destroy him:

Amid these groups of worshippers, they tell me, stand
bowls full of wine; and our women go creeping off
this way and that to lonely places and give themselves
to lecherous men. (p. 198 l.220)

We get the first sense of what is stirring dangerously in Pentheus. Dionysus is there, in him as in everyone else> He is a force of nature and you can’t get rid of him. But in Pentheus he has been forced down into enmity, and is invading now from below, pushing up into a very frail ego-structure—formed without any of the force (and Ethos) which Dionysus brings. . He is terrified. He has chained up the women he could get his hands on, and will hang the foreigner as soon as he catches him. Then he notices the two reverend fathers of the City clad in fawn-skins and his rage has no bounds. Tiresias answers him calmly, and tells him (and us) something of the nature of Dionysus. First, he is a natural force, an irresistible energy. You can’t get rid of him, and he has seized these women because he has been too long excluded. Secondly there is something he brings which is from beyond the boundaries of time and space, like the Oracle at Delphi.

The Bacchic ecstasy, and frenzy, ,
Holds a strong, prophetic element.
When the god fills irresistibly a human body
He gives those so possessed the power to foretell the future. (p201. line 303)

And in the same moment Dionysus brings that spirit, which I have called the Ethos, by which things grow authentically into their own fulfilment.

Dionysus will not compel
Women to be chaste, since in all matters, self-control
Resides in our own natures…
(p. 201 l. 315-)

For Jung too, Ethos is the natural integrity of the personality, different to morality which is important but part of the mores of the culture, so not requiring any judgment in the individual. To all this,. Pentheus reacts with a sort of panic. .’Don’t wipe your crazy folly onto me!’ and at once a crazy folly breaks out within him.

Go, someone, quickly, to his seat of augury,
Smash it with crow-bars, topple the walls, throw all his things
In wild confusion, turn the whole place upside down,
Fling out his holy fripperies to the hurricane winds!
The rest of you, go comb the country and track down
The effeminate foreigner . . . (p.303 l.348)

As Pentheus leaves the stage. Before, you were unbalanced, Tiresias calls after him: Now you are insane. And shouts and crashing walls sound from offstage. The Chorus, like a mantra against chaos, sing of the peace that is beloved by Dionysus:

Dionysus, son of Zeus, delights in banquets;
And his dear love is Peace, giver of wealth,
Saviour of young men’s lives—a goddess rare!
His enemy is the man who has no care
To pass his years in happiness and health
His days in quiet and his nights in joy. (p. 205 l.424)

The natural unfurling of life out of its own roots is, they are saying, the gift of Dionysus. At this point guards appear from one side of the stage, escorting the god, and the king returns on the other. We have one of those direct confronations in which the Greek theatre delighted. First speaks the guard:

Sir, we’ve brought the prey you sent us out to catch;
We hunted him and here he is. But, Sir, we found
The beast was gentle; made no attempt to run away,
Just held his hands out . . . telling us to tie him up and run him in;
Gave us no trouble,
At all, just waited for us. Naturally I felt
A bit embarrassed. ‘You’ll excuse me, Sir,’ I said.
‘I don’t want to arrest you; It’s the king’s command!’

Another thing, Sir, those women you rounded up
And put in fetters in the prison, those Bacchants;
Well, they’re all gone, turned lose to the glens; and there they are
Frisking about, calling on Bromius their god.
The fetters simply opened and fell off their feet;
The bolts shot back, untouched by mortal hand; the doors
Flew wide. Master, this man has come here with a load of miracles. (p.205 l.440)

We think of Peter in the Christian myth, set free from prison. ‘And behold, the angel of the lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter upon the side saying, Rise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.’ (Acts, 12). Euripides wrote long before Christ, but the same archetype is present, for when Dionysus is aroused, the normal expectation that if you chain people up they will remain chained, is no longer reliable. Another sort of causality is at work. From this point on, we see that Pentheus has no defence against this stranger, and is increasingly deluded.

First comes a sort of repressed homosexuality:

Your shape is not unhandsome
For the pursuit of women . . .
hunting Aphrodite with your lovely face. (p.206 l.450)

But quickly the flirting turns into rage for he is no match for Dionysus and the only thing he has to call on is his kingly power, which he can’t now count on. He had ordered his men to chain him up in the stables, but as they did it the very buildings had begun to crash and break into flames. And now, when he returns , there, opposite him is still the prisoner. And at that moment a herdsman arrives back from the mountain, with another strange tale to tell. He has seen the women but they were not as the king had led them to expect:

The leader of one company
Was Autinoe. Your mother. Agave was at the head
Of the second, Ino of the third; and they all lay
Relaxed and quietly sleeping . . .
But modestly, not as you told us drunk with wine
Or flute music, seeking the solitary woods
For the pursuit of love . . .
They were a sight to marvel at,
For modest comeliness; women both old and young,
Girls still unmarried. First they let their hair fall free
Over their shoulders. Some tied up the fastenings
Of fawnskins they had loosened; round the dappled fur
Curled snakes that licked their cheeks. Some would have in their arms
A young gazelle, or wild wolf-cubs, to which they gave
Their own white milk . . . One would strike her thyrsus on the rock
And from the rock a limpid stream of water sprang.
Another dug her wand into the earth and there
The god sent up a fountain of wine. Those who desired
Milk had only to scratch the earth with fingertips
And there was the white stream flowing for them to drink
While from the thyrsus a sweet ooze of honey dripped.
Oh, if you had been there and seen all this, you would
Have offered prayers to this god whom you now condemn. (p.215 l.678-)

But the men have their orders: they are to bind the women. And as soon as they start, everything changes, exploding into a more than human violence. The herdsmen flee, but their innocent cattle are not so lucky. The women fling themselves upon them and tear them into bloody rags.

At this point they have become identified with the Furies, the “queens of terror, their faces filled with dread’, the great, natural powers which avenge all insults done to Nature—but which were also ‘the Kindly Ones’ —depending entirely on ourselves. They are present now, with all the power of nature and earthquake in their arms—and just as little discrimination. For the women are no longer in charge of themselves, they are possessed.

You’d see some rib, or a cleft hoof, tossed high and low;
And rags of flesh hung from pine branches, dripping blood.
Bulls which one moment felt proud rage hot in their horns,
The next were thrown bodily to the ground, dragged down
By hands of girls in thousands.
Then skimming bird-like over the surface of the ground
They scoured the plain, and like an enemy force
They fell on Hysiae and Erithrae, two villages,
And ransacked both.” (p.252 l.750)

The messenger is deeply shaken and confesses that there can be is no greater god than Dionysus.

And now, the god himself stands before the king, as Christ before Pilate; and it is the king himself who is judged. We watch as Pentheus, like a poor, senseless bullock, is led off to his slaughter. How does it happen? What is the moment of change at which the tables are turned and he himself becomes a captive? It is when Dionysus suggests that he go out to the mountain and see these women. In order to do that, it would be best to dress up as one of them. It is that which opens the door to the unconscious. It is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the divine; and for him it is dangerous, extremely dangerous. . It is safe for the women and the old men clad in their fawn-skins, but for Pentheus it is not safe. The deeper layers of the psyche, which have the lure of the opposite sex, have been long neglected. The ego is split by forces that in the healthy psyche are germane and kin to it. And what is good food and drink for others is for him poison.

So this most patriarchal of men is shown dressed in drag, identified with his own image of the feminine which is in effect his mother and his aunts. He adopts even a bizarre coquetry. ‘How do I look? Tell me, is not this the way that Ino stands, and my mother Agave?’ He doesn’t have to wait to have his head pulled off: it is already happening. The mother-imago is doing it. ‘Wait now,’ says the god. ‘Here a curl has slipped, not as I tucked it carefully beneath your snood!’

And the dazed king replies, ‘Indoors, as I was tossing my head like a Bacchic dancer, I must have shaken it from its place.’

One sign of the ego invaded by unconscious forces is this incongruous contra-sexuality. Another is the vast inflation that accompanies it. He thinks he can lift up the whole mountain of Cithaeron in his arms. The greatest of all limits to the ego is its sexual identity. Without that, all boundaries may be dissolved.

‘Could I lift on my shoulders the whole weight of Cithaeron, and all the women dancing there? . . . Shall I put my shoulder under this rock and heave the mountain up with my two arms?’ It is similar to the inflation which destroys even the most petty and domestic tyrants. Pentheus leaves the stage but we soon hear of his end. He has climbed up a tree, the better to spy on the women; and they have simply pulled over the tree and torn him limb from limb. His own mother, Agave, pulled off his head and she comes exultantly on stage, holding the object in her arms. Only Cadmus, her father, has the courage to meet her, to make her look at what she carries and see.

He takes her through it as a psychotherapist might do it today: ‘Look!’ he says, whose head is that?’ ‘It is a lion’s head,’ she answers, ‘or so they say it is.’ ‘Then look again, look straight,’ he says, ‘To look is no great task.’

And then she looks, and sees.

At this point in the play it has come to its own conclusion, both dramatically and psychologically. It has said what it has to say. But as with Iphigenia in Aulis we have a long and astonishingly boring end, certainly not written by Euripides. In it, Dionysus is said to return in judgment, dealing out punishment in an Apollonian way, like a conventional king. ‘Have mercy on us, Dionysus, says Cadmus, ‘for we have sinned’. It is like a penitent addressing Yahweh, and it makes no sense even in its own terms. For Cadmus, almost alone in this concourse, never doubted the reality of his daughter’s experience, and had tended her shrine. An inexpert hand is writing this, presumably with his eye on the box office or the prize. Once more, Euripides’s truth is not what Athens wants to hear.And it is not for a modern suadience either. Nothing has changed.

The Dionysian justice which Euripides knew is also a hard truth. Two thousand years later Shakespeare’s Macbeth will understand it but be unable to act on its understanding. Compared with his ambition he will risk judgment in the next world. He doesn’t much believe in it anyway. . Yet

‘We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instruction, which being taught return
To plague th’inventor. This even handed justice
Commends th’ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.’

Shakespeare was far more prophetic even than we have thought. What Macbeth understands but can’t act on is NThe is natural justice has been on the horizon of our culture, awaiting its full discovery, but the world has developed in such a way that it can no longer be avoided.