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The Bacchae
Trance Dance

The word for the dance around a giant phallus was komos --the root of the word comedy.


Dionysos is an ally of  oppressed femininity


The Women of Amphissa
[click to enlarge]

In Euripides' play, "The Bacchae":
Maenads or mad women accomplish amazing things while possessed by Dionysos.
  • They raise up fountains of wine, milk, and honey. 
  • They gird themselves with snakes, and give suck to fawns and wolf cubs as if they were infants at the breast.
  •  Fire, swords, and rocks fail to harm them.
  •  They can tear live bulls apart with their bare hands.
  •  And they can uproot sturdy, full-grown trees.

Maenads murder King Pentheus after he bans the worship of Dionysus because the Maenads deny Pentheus' divinity. Dionysus, Pentheus' cousin, lured Pentheus to the woods, where the Maenads tore him apart. His corpse was mutilated by his own mother, Agave, culminating when she tears off his head, believing it to be that of a lion.

Thiasos is a Greek coven,  lodge, or organized band of Maenads. There were many other names for these groups of ecstatic women:
  • BBacchantes Mainades
  • Mimallones
  • Klodones
  • Bakchai
  • Bassarides
  • Thyiades
  • Potniades
  • Protides
  • Lapsistiai
  • Phoibades

"One thinks of Presley, Brando and all those free, wild, sexy mad loverboys who attract women. He can be full of enthusiasm, sparkling with excitement; his energy wakes people up, draws them into dancing and celebrating, into the emotion of the moment...women want to be part of the Bacchanalia and to protect the childlike vitality of their wild lover."
Ginette Paris


In the candomble, when possession is long in coming, the priestesses or priests ring a bell very close to the dancer's ears. This is also done among the African Thonga with rattles, in Tibet with horns, and in Bali with singers. Perhaps it was done with the flute or castinets among the Bakchoi.
Some maenads wore coronets woven with the seed heads of the opium poppy.


Maenads worshipping an image of Dionysos at the Lenaia

"The women dancers wore only soft fawn skins, with wreaths of ivy and carried long hollow stalks of wild fennel tipped with pine cones and wreathed with more ivy. The men jiggled about absurdly with preposterous leather phalluses flapping in front and long horse-tails sticking from the back of their breeches. "

Hugh Johnson
The story of wine

maenad with torn-up animal

In the play Edonians, Aeschylus describes music of Dionysian worshippers like this:
  • One on the fair-turned pipe fulfils
  • His song, with the warble of fingered trills
  • The soul to frenzy awakening.
  • From another the brazen cymbals ring.
  • The shawm blares out, but beneath is the moan
  • Of the bull-voiced mimes, unseen, unknown
  • And in deep diapason the shuddering sound
  • Of drums, like thunder, beneath the ground.

Crowned with vine leaves, clothed in fawnskins and carrying the thyrsus and a roaring panther


[click pic above to enlarge]
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Bacchanalia gallery

DANCE is Divinely Healthy
Plato believed that movement was healing and health-provoking, since movement has a connection with the Divine part of us which in turn reflects the revolutions of the Universe. In the Ion, Plato describes how ecstatic dancers like the Mænads and Korybantes find their dance: "they have a sharp ear for one tune only, the one which belongs to the God by Whom they are possessed, and to that tune they respond freely in gesture and speech, while they ignore all others."

Maenads reflect the magical qualities of womanliness: beauty, motherliness, music, prophecy, and association with death. Thus, according to Otto (p.144):
"It would be impossible to think  of them as possessed with the same excessive erotic desire found in men."

Maenads [MEE-nads] were female worshippers of Dionysus, the Greek god of mystery, wine and intoxication. Bacchantes is the equivalent Roman term. They are usually shown entranced by music and dancing in a complete union with primeval nature.

For the mystically inclined, maenadism gave women a chance to touch the divine. "The bacchante pays no attention to the silenus who grabs at her in his lust," Otto quotes Plutarch; "the image of Dionysos, whom she loves, stands alive before her soul, and she sees him even though he is far away from her; for the glances of the bacchante sweep up high into the aether and yet are filled with the spirit of love." Her state of frenzy is blessed. She goes beyond the intoxication of wine, the characteristic maenad dance with thrown-back head of vase paintings, to the pure madness and ecstasy of a spirit wedding the god.

The core ritual associated with the worship of Dionysus among the Greeks was orgiastic, meaning that it involved states of trance-like ecstasy, “outside-of-one selfness,” merging with and possession by the god. It was celebrated every two years, at mid-winter near the time of the solstice, on barren mountain tops, especially Mt. Parnassus overlooking Delphi. The summit of Parnassus is more than 2,438 meters (8,000 feet) high and was quite cold during these winter revels. The pilgrimage to the holy shrine of the oracle of the Delphi at the top was via Eleusis and the sacred city of Thebes. Dionysus ruled from December till February and Apollo ruled the other nine months.
In the play Antigone, playwright Sophocles describes the scene:

"Surrounded by the light of torches, he stands high on the twin summits of Parnassus, while the Corycian nymphs dance around as Bacchantes, and the waters of Castalia sound from the depths below. Up there in the snow and winter darkness Dionysus rules in the long night, while troops of maenads swarm around him, himself the choir leader for the dance of the stars and quick of hearing for every sound in the waster of the night."

There were three parts to this ritual:

  • oreibasia (“mountain dancing”): To the accompaniment of flutes, drums, and cymbals, the worshippers, particularly women, danced themselves into ecstatic trances.
  • sparagmos (“tearing to pieces”): In these trances they caught snakes and small animals and dismembered them with their bare hands.
  • omophagia (“eating raw flesh”): By eating the bloody flesh of these animals, the worshippers became one with the god and with the wild natural forces that he represented.

The Maenads were also known as Bacchantes (or Bacchae or Bassarids ) in Roman mythology, after the penchant of the equivalent Roman god, Bacchus, to wear a fox-skin (bassaris).

The behavior of Maenads in stories is intended to explain and display the intoxicating effects of alcohol. In some cases, the alcohol causes bizarre behavior in people and cannot be justified or explained by any other reason except that of the intoxication.

TRANCE DANCE:  Dr. Gilbert Rouget, the expert in Ethnomusicology at University of Paris says nothing has yet been identified which will reliably invoke a trance. While the disorientation of the inner ear or the 'driving' effects of the drums or bells or noise on the nervous system are important contributing factors, none explain it fully. Dancers themselves have a ready explanation; they say it is the Deity.

"Without the Divine participation, there is no Divine trance, only a kind of hypnosis. That's not what we're after. The Mænadic Dance is ritual and the effect comes from a combination of all the ritual factors --- from the music and movement to the spiritual state of the dancer and the grace of the God."


The extreme behavior of the mad women in Euripides' The Bacchae  is likely the source for the often mentioned claim that women possessed by Dionysus' ecstatic frenzy indulged in copious amounts of violence, bloodletting, sex and self-intoxication and mutilation. The claim is made dubious by the abundance of surviving art that rarely depicts these acts, and shows more of a sacrifice ritual occurring. Still, the word maenad literally translates as "raving ones" and abandoning the reasoning mind was the goal of the ritual. The English word "maniac" has roots similar to "Maenad" in Latin and Greek.

During their ecstatic rituals, the maenads let their hair flow loose and uncovered, which is likely why the first Christian apostle Paul did not want the Christian female prophets wearing unrestrained hair.

Attempts to restore woman to positions of authority in organized religion continue to grow, but still remain marginal and  controversial for most cultures.  Maenads reflect the original role of women as priestesses in mystery religions in the prior age before the birth of Christ. History has not been kind to this story, tainting the gender to a mythological devolution where we find her role in history shifted from inspirer to temptress, from shamanic ecstacy to sexual excitement, and spontaneous ecstatic singing replaced with masturbation as the cathartic moment of apotheosis.  

"So long as we are unconscious of the divinity inherent in matter, sexuality can be manipulated to fulfill ego desire; the sacred prostitute is not present, nor is the Goddess being invoked. Instead of manifesting as a transformative power that can mediate between wounded instinct and the radiance of the divine, the Goddess is called upon to justify lust and sexual license. Light does not come through incessant wallowing in the dark. All our rage, all our bitterness, all our fears, are stepping stones. Only from a clear vision of oneness, an experience of genuine love, can we live our own truth. Whether this experience is given through another human being or through a solitary connection with the divine, this is the experience that illuminates our lives."

Marion Woodman intro to The Sacred Prostitute  by Nancy Qualls-Corbett

Download In every heart, both male and female, there is an eternal and immutable touchstone of joy. All too often that joy is lost in contemporary society, through harsh experience, or in the rush towards simplistic ideologies like "men bad, women good" (or the opposite). Nancy Qualls-Corbett attempts to show both men and women how to transcend the narrowly-defined sex roles and oppressions that have been imposed on them from childhood and to rediscover that touchstone of joy.  Review at amazon by PJ Thompson

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