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What is a Bacchante?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 27 July 2014
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A Bacchante in Roman mythology is a female follower of Bacchus, god of wine and intoxication. In Greek mythology, they are called Maenads. Bacchantes are depicted as mad or wild women, running through the forest, tearing animals to pieces, and engaging in other acts of frenzied intoxication.

Bacchantes were the most important members of Bacchus' legendary retinue, the Thiasus. They were a popular subject in art dating from ancient Rome and Greece to the modern period. A Bacchante is often depicted semi-clothed in animal skins and vine leaves.

A Bacchante typically carries a thrysus, a staff made of giant fennel and topped with a pine cone, often wreathed in ivy. The thrysus was a sacred emblem of Bacchus, used in ceremonies and celebrations honoring the god. It symbolizes a union of forest: the pine cone, and farm: the fennel, and may also serve as a phallic symbol representing fertility.

The Bacchante is symbolic of both the ecstasy and the destructive power of the god she worships and his major attribute, wine. Though she sometimes appears in modern representations to be simply a free spirit, the Bacchante has a darker side. Bacchantes are possessed and act as if in a trance, completely abandoned to their physical natures. They are capable of ripping to shreds not only any animal that crosses their path, but humans as well, in a sacrificial rite known as sparagmos. Sometimes, the rite is followed by omophagia, in which Bacchantes eat the victim's remains.

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Bacchantes appear in their more destructive guise in Euripides' play The Bacchae and in Ovid's Metamorphoses. In Euripides' play, regular women become Bacchantes, forgetting their duties as wives, mothers, and community members in their ecstasy. At the play's conclusion, the Theban king Pentheus is mauled to death by his own mother and aunts. In the Metamorphoses, Orpheus meets his end in a similar manner.

In both literary treatments of the Bacchante described above, the victims of sparagmos reject Bacchus before they are murdered. Pentheus attempts to ban worship of the god in his domain and even imprisons Bacchus, though the god easily escapes. Orpheus also rejects either Bacchus himself or the sexual advances of the Bacchantes, depending on the telling, before becoming their sacrifice.

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