DIONYSUS: [shouting from within the palace]
Io! Hear me, hear me as I call you.
Io! Bacchae! Io Bacchae!
CHORUS: [a confusion of different voices in the following speeches]
Who’s that? Who is it? It’s Dionysus’ voice!
It’s calling me. But from what direction?
DIONYSUS: [From inside the palace] Io! Io! I’m calling out again—
the son of Semele, a child of Zeus!
CHORUS: Io! Io! Lord and master!
Come join our company,
Bromius, oh Bromius!
CHORUS VOICE 1: Ai! Soon Pentheus’ palace
will be shaken into rubble.
CHORUS VOICE 4: You see those stone lintels on the pillars—
they’re splitting up. It’s Bromius calling,
shouting to us from inside the walls.
DIONYSUS: [from inside the palace] Let fiery lightning strike right now—
burn Pentheus’ palace—consume it all!
CHORUS VOICE 5: Look! Don’t you see the fire—
there by the sacred tomb of Semele!
The flame left by that thunderbolt from Zeus,
when the lightning flash destroyed her,
all that time ago. Oh Maenads—
throw your bodies on the ground, down, down,
for our master, Zeus’ son, moves now
against the palace—to demolish it.
DIONYSUS: Ah, my barbarian Asian women,
Do you lie there on the ground prostrate with fear?
It seems you feel Dionysus’ power,
as he rattles Pentheus’ palace.
Get up now. Be brave. And stop your trembling.
CHORUS LEADER: How happy I am to see you—
Our greatest light in all the joyful dancing.
We felt alone and totally abandoned.
DIONYSUS: Did you feel despair when I was sent away,
cast down in Pentheus’ gloomy dungeon?
CHORUS LEADER: How could I not? Who’ll protect me
if you run into trouble? But tell me,
how did you escape that ungodly man?
DIONYSUS: In this business I was playing with him—
he thought he was tying me up, the fool!
He didn’t even touch or handle me,
he was so busy feeding his desires.
In that stable where he went to tie me up,
he found a bull. He threw the iron fetters
around its knees and hooves. As he did so,
he kept panting in his rage, dripping sweat
from his whole body—his teeth gnawed his lip.
I watched him, sitting quietly nearby.
After a while, Bacchus came and shook the place,
setting his mother Semele’s tomb on fire.
Seeing that, Pentheus thought his palace
was burning down. He ran round, here and there,
yelling to his slaves to bring more water.
His servants set to work—and all for nothing!
Once I’d escaped, he ended all that work.
Seizing a dark sword, he rushed inside the house.
Then, it seems to me, but I’m guessing now,
Bromius set up out there in the courtyard
some phantom image. Pentheus charged it,
slashing away at nothing but bright air,
thinking he was butchering me. There’s more—
Bacchus kept hurting him in still more ways.
He knocked his house down, right to the ground,
all shattered, so Pentheus has witnessed
a bitter end to my imprisonment.
He’s dropped his sword, worn out, exhausted,
a mere mortal daring to fight a god.
So now I’ve strolled out calmly to you,
leaving the house, ignoring Pentheus.
Wait! It seems to me I hear marching feet—
no doubt he’ll come out front here soon enough.
What will he say, I wonder, after this?
Well, I’ll deal with him quite gently,
even if he comes out breathing up a storm.
After all, a wise man ought to keep his temper.
PENTHEUS: What’s happening to me—total disaster!
The stranger’s escaped, and we’d just chained him up.
Ah ha! Here is the man—right here.
What’s going on? How did you get out?
How come you’re here, outside my palace?
DIONYSUS: Didn’t I say someone would release me—
or did you miss that part?
PENTHEUS: Who was it?
You’re always explaining things in riddles.
DIONYSUS: It was the one who cultivates for men
the richly clustering vine.
PENTHEUS: Ah, this Dionysus.
Your words are a lovely insult to your god.
PENTHEUS: [To soldiers] Seal off all the towers on my orders—
all of them around the city.
DIONYSUS: What for?
Surely a god can make it over any wall?
PENTHEUS: You’re so wise, except in all those things
in which you should be wise.
DIONYSUS: I was born wise,
especially in matters where I need to be.
DIONYSUS: But first you’d better listen to this man,
hear what he has to say, for he’s come here
from the mountains to report to you.
I’ll still be here for you. I won’t run off.
MESSENGER: Pentheus, ruler of this land of Thebes,
I’ve just left Cithaeron, that mountain
where the sparkling snow never melts away.
MESSENGER: I saw those women in their Bacchic revels,
those sacred screamers, all driven crazy,
the ones who run barefoot from their homes.
I came, my lord, to tell you and the city
the dreadful things they’re doing, their actions
are beyond all wonder. But, my lord,
first I wish to know if I should tell you,
openly report what’s going on up there,
or whether I should hold my tongue.
Your mood changes so fast I get afraid—
your sharp spirit, your all-too-royal temper.
PENTHEUS: Speak on. Whatever you have to report,
you’ll get no punishment at all from me.
It’s not right to vent one’s anger on the just.
The more terrible the things you tell me
about those Bacchic women, the worse
I’ll move against the one who taught them
all their devious tricks.
MESSENGER: The grazing cattle
were just moving into upland pastures,
at the hour the sun sends out its beams
to warm the earth. Right then I saw them—
three groups of dancing women. One of them
Autonoe led. Your mother, Agave,
led the second group, and Ino led the third.
They were all asleep, bodies quite relaxed,
some leaning back on leafy boughs of pine,
others cradling heads on oak-leaf pillows,
resting on the ground—in all modesty.
They weren’t as you described—all drunk on wine
or on the music of their flutes, hunting
for Aphrodite in the woods alone.
Once she heard my horned cattle lowing,
your mother stood up amid those Bacchae,
then called them to stir their limbs from sleep.
They rubbed refreshing sleep out of their eyes,
and stood up straight there—a marvelous sight,
to see such an orderly arrangement,
women young and old and still unmarried girls.
First, they let their hair loose down their shoulders,
tied up the fawn skins (some had untied the knots
to loosen up the chords). Then around those skins
they looped some snakes, who licked the women’s cheeks.
Some held young gazelles or wild wolf cubs
and fed them on their own white milk, the ones
who’d left behind at home a new-born child
whose breasts were still swollen full of milk.
They draped themselves with garlands from oak trees,
ivy and flowering yew. Then one of them,
taking a thyrsus, struck a rock with it,
and water gushed out, fresh as dew. Another,
using her thyrsus, scraped the ground. At once,
the god sent fountains of wine up from the spot.
All those who craved white milk to drink
just scratched the earth with their fingertips—
it came out in streams. From their ivy wands
thick sweet honey dripped. Oh, if you’d been there,
if you’d seen this, you’d come with reverence
to that god whom you criticize so much.
Well, we cattle herders and shepherds met
to discuss and argue with each other
about the astonishing things we’d seen.
And then a man who’d been in town a bit
and had a way with words said to us all,
“You men who live in the holy regions
of these mountains, how’d you like to hunt down
Pentheus’ mother, Agave—take her
away from these Bacchic celebrations,
do the king a favour?” To all of us
he seemed to make good sense. So we set up
an ambush, hiding in the bushes,
lying down there. At the appointed time,
the women started their Bacchic ritual,
brandishing the thyrsus and calling out
to the god they cry to, Bromius, Zeus’ son.
The entire mountain and its wild animals
were, like them, in one Bacchic ecstasy.
As these women moved, they made all things dance.
Agave, by chance, was dancing close to me.
Leaving the ambush where I’d been concealed,
I jumped out, hoping to grab hold of her.
But she screamed out, “Oh, my quick hounds,
men are hunting us. Come, follow me.
Come on, armed with that thyrsus in your hand.”
We ran off, and so escaped being torn apart.
But then those Bacchic women, all unarmed,
went at the heifers browsing on the turf,
using their bare hands. You should have seen one
ripping a fat, young, lowing calf apart—
others tearing cows in pieces with their hands.
You could’ve seen ribs and cloven hooves
tossed everywhere—some hung up in branches
dripping blood and gore. And bulls, proud beasts till then,
with angry horns, collapsed there on the ground,
dragged down by the hands of a thousand girls.
Hides covering their bodies were stripped off
faster than you could wink your royal eye.
Then, like birds carried up by their own speed,
they rushed along the lower level ground,
beside Asopus’ streams, that fertile land
which yields its crops to Thebes. Like fighting troops,
they raided Hysiae and Erythrae,
below rocky Cithaeron, smashing
everything, snatching children from their homes.
Whatever they carried their shoulders,
even bronze or iron, never tumbled off
onto the dark earth, though nothing was tied down.
They carried fire in their hair, but those flames
never singed them. Some of the villagers,
enraged at being plundered by the Bacchae,
seized weapons. The sight of what happened next,
my lord, was dreadful. For their pointed spears
did not draw blood. But when those women
threw the thrysoi in their hands, they wounded them
and drove them back in flight. The women did this
to men, but not without some god’s assistance.
Then they went back to where they’d started from,
those fountains which the god had made for them.
They washed off the blood. Snakes licked their cheeks,
cleansing their skin of every drop. My lord,
you must welcome this god into our city,
whoever he is. He’s a mighty god
in many other ways. The people say,
so I’ve heard, he gives to mortal human beings
that vine which puts an end to human grief.
Without wine, there’s no more Aphrodite—
or any other pleasure left for men.
CHORUS LEADER: I’m afraid to talk freely before the king,
but nonetheless I’ll speak—this Dionysus
is not inferior to any god.
PENTHEUS: This Dionysian arrogance, like fire,
keeps flaring up close by—a great insult
to all the Greeks. We must not hesitate.
Go to the Electra Gates. Call out the troops,
the heavy infantry, all fast cavalry.
Tell them to muster, along with all those
who carry shields—all the archers, too,
the men who pull the bowstring back by hand.
We’ll march out against these Bacchae.
In this whole business we will lose control,
if we have to put up with what we’ve suffered
from these women.
DIONYSUS: You’ve heard what I had to say,
Pentheus, but still you’re not convinced.
Though I’m suffering badly at your hands,
I say you shouldn’t go to war against a god.
You should stay calm. Bromius will not let you
move his Bacchae from their mountains.
PENTHEUS: Don’t preach to me! You’ve got out of prison—
enjoy that fact. Or shall I punish you some more?
DIONYSUS: I’d sooner make an offering to that god
than in some angry fit kick at his whip—
a mortal going to battle with a god.
PENTHEUS: I’ll sacrifice all right—with a slaughter
of those women, just as they deserve—
in the forests on Cithaeron.