TIRESIAS: You feel the same way I do, then.
For I’m young and going to try the dancing.
CADMUS: So I’ll be your nursemaid—one old man
will take charge of another one?
TIRESIAS: The god himself
will get us to the place without our efforts.
CADMUS: Of all the city are we the only ones
who’ll dance to honour Bacchus?
TIRESIAS: Yes, indeed,
for we’re the only ones whose minds are clear.
As for the others, well, their thinking’s wrong.
TIRESIAS: To the gods we mortals are all ignorant.
Those old traditions from our ancestors,
the ones we’ve had as long as time itself,
no argument will ever overthrow,
in spite of subtleties sharp minds invent.
Will someone say I disrespect old age,
if I intend to dance with ivy on my head?
Not so, for the god makes no distinctions—
whether the dancing is for young or old.
He wants to gather honours from us all,
to be praised communally, without division.
CADMUS: Since you’re blind to daylight, Tiresias,
I’ll be your seer, tell you what’s going on—
Pentheus, that child of Echion, the one
to whom I handed over power in this land,
he’s coming here, to the house. He’s in a rush.
He looks so flustered. What news will he bring?
PENTHEUS: It so happens I’ve been away from Thebes,
but I hear about disgusting things going on,
here in the city—women leaving home
to go to silly Bacchic rituals,
cavorting there in mountain shadows,
with dances honouring some upstart god,
this Dionysus, whoever he may be. Mixing bowls
in the middle of their meetings are filled with wine.
They creep off one by one to lonely spots
to have sex with men, claiming they’re Maenads
busy worshipping. But they rank Aphrodite,
goddess of sexual desire, ahead of Bacchus.
All the ones I’ve caught, my servants guard
in our public prison, their hands chained up.
All those who’re still away, I’ll chase down,
hunt them from the mountains—that includes
Agave, who bore me to Echion, Ino,
and Autonoe, Actaeon’s mother.
Once I’ve clamped them all in iron fetters,
I’ll quickly end this perverse nastiness,
this Bacchic celebration. People say
some stranger has arrived, some wizard,
a conjurer from the land of Lydia—
with sweet-smelling hair in golden ringlets
and Aphrodite’s charms in wine-dark eyes.
He hangs around the young girls day and night,
dangling in front of them his joyful mysteries.
If I catch him in this city, I’ll stop him.
He’ll make no more clatter with his thyrsus,
or wave his hair around. I’ll chop off his head,
slice it right from his body. This man claims
that Dionysus is a god, alleging
that once upon a time he was sewn up,
stitched inside Zeus’ thigh—but Dionysus
was burned to death, along with Semele,
in that lightning strike, because she’d lied.
She maintained that she’d had sex with Zeus.
All this surely merits harsh punishment,
death by hanging. Whoever this stranger is,
his insolence is an insult to me.
Well, here’s something totally astounding!
I see Tiresias, our soothsayer, all dressed up
in dappled fawn skins—my mother’s father, too!
This is ridiculous. To take a thyrsus
and jump around like this. [To Cadmus] You sir,
I don’t like to see such arrant foolishness
from your old age. Why not throw out that ivy?
And, grandfather, why not let that thyrsus go?
Tiresias, you’re the one who’s put him up to this.
You want to bring in some new god for men,
so you’ll be able to inspect more birds,
and from his sacrifices make more money.
If your gray old age did not protect you,
you’d sit in chains with all the Bacchae
for such a ceremonial perversion.
Whenever women at some banquet
start to take pleasure in the gleaming wine,
I say there’s nothing healthy in their worshipping.
CHORUS LEADER: That’s impiety! O stranger,
have you no reverence for the gods, for Cadmus,
who sowed that crop of men born from the earth?
You’re a child of Echion—do you wish
to bring your own family into disrepute?
TIRESIAS: When a man of wisdom has good occasion
to speak out, and takes the opportunity,
it’s not that hard to give an excellent speech.
You’ve got a quick tongue and seem intelligent,
but your words don’t make any sense at all.
A fluent orator whose power comes
from self-assurance and from nothing else
makes a bad citizen, for he lacks sense.
This man, this new god, whom you ridicule—
it’s impossible for me to tell you
just how great he’ll be in all of Greece.
Young man, among human beings two things
stand out preeminent, of highest rank.
Goddess Demeter is one—she’s the earth
(though you can call her any name you wish),
and she feeds mortal people cereal grains.
The other one came later, born of Semele—
he brought with him liquor from the grape,
something to match the bread from Demeter.
He introduced it among mortal men.
When they can drink up what streams off the vine,
unhappy mortals are released from pain.
It grants them sleep, allows them to forget
their daily troubles. Apart from wine,
there is no cure for human hardship.
He, being a god, is poured out to the gods,
so human beings receive fine benefits
as gifts from him. And yet you mock him. Why?
Because he was sewn into Zeus thigh?
Well, I’ll show you how this all makes sense.
When Zeus grabbed him from the lightning flame,
he brought him to Olympus as a god.
But Hera wished to throw him out of heaven.
So Zeus, in a manner worthy of a god,
came up with a cunning counter plan.
From the sky which flows around the earth,
Zeus broke off a piece, shaped it like Dionysus,
then gave that to Hera, as a hostage.
The real child he sent to nymphs to raise,
thus saving him from Hera’s jealousy.
Over time people mixed up “sky” and “thigh,”
saying he’d come from Zeus’s thigh, changing words,
because he, a god, had once been hostage
to goddess Hera. So they made up the tale.
This god’s a prophet, too, for in his rites—
the Bacchic celebrations and the madness—
a huge prophetic powere is unleashed.
When the god fully enters human bodies,
he makes those possessed by frenzy prophets.
They speak of what will come in future days
He also shares the work of war god Ares.
For there are times an army all drawn up,
its weapons ready, can shake with terror,
before any man has set hand to his spear.
Such madness comes from Dionysus.
Some day you’ll see him on those rocks at Delphi,
leaping with torches on the higher slopes,
way up there between two mountain peaks,
waving and shaking his Bacchic wand,
a great power in Greece. Trust me, Pentheus.
Don’t be too confident a sovereign’s force
controls men. If something seems right to you,
but your mind’s diseased, don’t think that’s wisdom.
So welcome this god into your country.
Pour libations to him, then celebrate
these Bacchic rites with garlands on your head.
On women, where Aphrodite is concerned,
Dionysus will not enforce restraint—
such modesty you must seek in nature,
where it already dwells. For any woman
whose character is chaste won’t be defiled
by Bacchic revelry. Don’t you see that?
When there are many people at your gates,
you’re happy. The city shouts your praise.
It celebrates the name of Pentheus.
The god, too, I think, derives great pleasure
from being honoured. And so Cadmus,
whom you mock, and I will crown our heads
with ivy and will join the ritual,
an old gray team, but still we have to dance.
Your words will not turn me against the god,
for you are mad—under a cruel delusion.
No drug can heal that ailment—in fact,
some drug has caused it.
CHORUS LEADER: Old man,
you’ve not disgraced Apollo with your words,
and by honouring this Dionysus,
a great god, you show your moderation.
CADMUS: My child, Tiresias has given you
some good advice. You should live among us,
not outside traditions. At this point,
you’re flying around—thinking, but not clearly.
For if, as you claim, this man is not a god,
why not call him one? Why not tell a lie,
a really good one? Then it will seem
that some god has been born to Semele.
We—and all our family—will win honour.
Remember the dismal fate of Actaeon—
torn to pieces in some mountain forest
by blood-thirsty dogs he’d raised himself.
He’d boasted he was better in the hunt
than Artemis. Don’t suffer the same fate.
Come here. Let me crown your head with ivy.
Join us in giving honour to this god.
PENTHEUS: Keep your hands off me! Be off with you—
go to these Bacchic rituals of yours.
But don’t infect me with your madness.
As for the one who in this foolishness
has been your teacher, I’ll bring him to justice.
One of you, go quickly to where this man,
Tiresias, has that seat of his, the place
where he inspects his birds. Take some levers,
knock it down. Demolish it completely.
Turn the whole place upside down—all of it.
Let his holy ribbons fly off in the winds.
That way I’ll really do him damage.
You others—go to the city, scour it
to capture this effeminate stranger,
who corrupts our women with a new disease,
and thus infects our beds. If you get him,
tie him up and bring him here for judgment,
a death by stoning. That way he’ll see
his rites in Thebes come to a bitter end.
TIRESIAS: You unhappy man, you’ve no idea
just what it is you’re saying. You’ve gone mad!
Even before now you weren’t in your right mind.
Let’s be off, Cadmus. We’ll pray to the god
on Pentheus’ behalf, though he’s a savage,
and for the city, too, so he won’t harm it.
Come with me—bring the ivy-covered staff.
See if you can help support my body.
I’ll do the same for you. It would be shameful
if two old men collapsed. No matter—
for we must serve Bacchus, son of Zeus.
But you, Cadmus, you should be more careful,
or Pentheus will bring trouble in your home.
I’m not saying this as a prophecy,
but on the basis of what’s going on.
A man who’s mad tends to utter madness.
CHORUS: Holiness, queen of the gods,
Holiness, sweeping over earth
on wings of gold,
do you hear what Pentheus says?
Do you hear the profanities he utters,
the insults against Bromius,
child of Semele, chief god
among all blessed gods,
for those who wear their lovely garlands
in a spirit of harmonious joy?
This is his special office,
to lead men together in the dance,
to make them laugh as the flute plays,
to bring all sorrows to an end,
at the god’s sacrificial feast,
when the gleaming liquid grapes arrive,
when the wine bowl casts its sleep
on ivy-covered feasting men.
Unbridled tongues and lawless folly
come to an end only in disaster.
A peaceful life of wisdom
It keeps the home united.
Though gods live in the sky,
from far away in heaven
they gaze upon the deeds of men.
But being clever isn’t wisdom.
And thinking deeply about things
isn’t suitable for mortal men.
Our life is brief—that’s why
the man who chases greatness
fails to grasp what’s near at hand.
That’s what madmen do,
men who’ve lost their wits.
That’s what I believe.
Would I might go to Cyprus,
island of Aphrodite,
where the Erotes,
bewitching goddesses of love,
soothe the hearts of humankind,
or to Paphos, rich and fertile,
not with rain, but with the waters
of a hundred flowing mouths
of a strange and foreign river.
Oh Bromius, Bromius,
inspired god who leads the Bacchae,
lead me away to lovely Peira,
where Muses dwell,
or to Olympus’ sacred slopes,
where Graces live, Desire, too,
where it’s lawful and appropriate
to celebrate our rites with Bacchus.
This god, son of Zeus,
rejoices in our banquets.
He adores the goddess Peace,
and she brings riches with her
and nourishes the young.
The god gives his wine equally,
sharing with rich and poor alike.
It takes away all sorrow.
But he hates the man who doesn’t care
to live his life in happiness,
by day and through the friendly nights.
From those who deny such common things
he removes intelligence,
their knowledge of true wisdom.
So I take this as my rule—
follow what common people think—
do what most men do.