Nothing in Excess: Religious Moderation in Euripides’ Bacchae

§1.1 In the Bacchae, Euripides uses the chorus to highlight the importance of religious moderation by providing the audience with distinct examples of ritual worship. At one end of the spectrum, Pentheus restricts the proper worship of Dionysus within Thebes and lashes out against the cult with violence. On the other end, the actions of the Theban women showcase an extravagant worship of Dionysus through their impious ritual practices. Although Dionysus did drive the Theban women mad, it is their actions that illustrate their impiety, not the madness itself. Bridging the gap is the chorus, whose σωφροσύνη gained from proper ritual practice allows them to remain religiously moderate with respect to the Bacchic rites. This range of rigid denouncement to extravagant worship, with the chorus serving as the middle ground, allows the audience to recognize that moderation is the ideal form of religious worship. Additionally, the choral odes and the god’s agon with Pentheus emphasize the difficulties in understanding the dual nature inherent in Dionysian ritual. Ultimately, Euripides demonstrates how σωφροσύνη allows mankind a glimpse of the god’s mastery of the polarized qualities present in Dionysian ritual practice.

§1.2 If σωφροσύνη is the key to understanding Dionysian worship, but there is no ancient corpus of Greek religion, how can scholars identify pious and impious ritual worship? The answer to this question lies in the inscriptions and texts that have survived from antiquity. Proper ritual sacrifice, for example, requires specific actions of the individual that also correspond to the rules of the particular sanctuary space. Hesiod explains why men sacrifice to honor the gods (e.g. Theogony, 535-59) and Homer often describes the conduct of a proper sacrifice (e.g. Odyssey, 3.429-64).Sanctuary inscriptions give more detailed instructions for each particular location such as: “it is not proper [to sacrifice] a sheep or pig” in Thasos, [1] or “[one should not] bring in sandals or any product made from pigs” in Rhodes.[2] The actions of the practitioner are dictated by tradition and written restrictions onsite, but the intent of the individual remains an elusive variable when identifying pious and impious ritual worship.

§1.3 Thucydides explains that while the mutilation of a few Herms could be ascribed to drunken shenanigans, the destruction of every herm in the city was seen as a direct assault against the gods of Athenian democracy (Thuc. 6.27). Likewise, in the 4th Mime of Herodas a sanctuary attendant assures two women that their meager sacrifice pleased the god just as much as the impressive dedications on display within the temple. In these examples it is clear that pious ritual practice is established through the combination of action and intent. The mutilation of the Herms indicates a malicious intent in contrast to the women’s modest sacrifice, which was considered equal to the lavish dedications within the temple. Likewise, a splendid sacrifice in Rhodes would not excuse passing the temenos with sandals on; the intent to honor the gods must be paired with proper ritual practice.

§1.4 In the Bacchae, the chorus of Lydian women demonstrates proper ritual worship of Dionysus in both action and intent. They demonstrate eusebia, or reverence towards the gods, through proper ritual practice (71-2) while remaining just in their actions with respect to both god’s and man’s law (1009-10).[3] Indeed, at the start of the play the foreign women are beckoned into the city by Dionysus himself (56-60), which emphasizes their legitimacy as pious worshippers to the audience.[4] Tiresias states that those possessing eusebia show good sense while those who do not revere the gods are fools (196). The Lydian women emphasize this sentiment by contrasting their voluntary worship of Dionysus with the madness that the god sends to those who reject him: “The words of unbridled mouths, the thoughts of lawless folly end in tears, while the life of calm and sanity sails a voyage tossed by no storm and holds families together” (386-92).[.5] Cadmus and his family lose everything while the chorus, who remain moderate in their actions and ritual practices, retain their soundness of mind during the events of the play. Similarly to proper ritual practice, eusebia is achieved in both the actions and intent of the practitioner as demonstrated by the chorus.

§1.5 In her article “The Role of τὸ σοφόν in Euripides’ Bacchae,” Patricia Reynolds-Warnhoff alludes to the importance of religious moderation in her analysis of τὸ σοφόν. While not discussing its relation to ritual worship specifically, she establishes three clauses for the definition and use of τὸ σοφόν that will be utilized in my own textual analysis of the chorus. First, τὸ σοφόν represents a type of divine wisdom, a wisdom that is innate in the gods.[6] Second, this type of wisdom encompasses a mastery of tragic contradictions (hereafter referred to as naturally occurring dualities) that are inherent in Dionysus and his ritual practices.[7] Last, τὸ σοφόν cannot be achieved without proper ritual practice and moderation, and, in accordance with her first clause, cannot be achieved by mortals at all.[8] The actions of the chorus illustrate that τὸ σοφόν is a worthwhile goal that pious individuals should seek to possess through an understanding of these naturally occurring dualities. In this way, the religious moderation demonstrated by the chorus suggests that the pursuit of τὸ σοφόν may be considered an act of ritual piety.

§1.6 In conjunction with Reynolds-Warnhoff, I believe that τὸ σοφόν is unattainable for mankind precisely because it is a trait of the divine. Although this mastery of the naturally occurring dualities cannot be achieved, Euripides provides the audience with examples of the manifestation of these contradictions through character interactions and location awareness. Dionysus states that, “where I should be σοφός , there above all I am so” (656) indicating that τὸ σοφόν is innate in the gods, making it by definition unattainable for mankind.[9] Furthermore, the god identifies himself as “both a terrifying and gentle god to mortals” (860-61), which emphasizes his mastery of these naturally occurring dualities such as joy/sorrow and wild/tame found within Dionysian ritual practice.[10] This aspect of the god’s identity is manifest in the oppositions within the tragedy. The Theban women live peacefully on the mountain, but are also capable of violently rending the flesh of full-grown cattle (682-84, 736-42). Dionysus invites the foreign women of the chorus into the city and banishes the Theban women to the wild (32-34, 55-60). Because he is a divine being, Dionysus is capable of navigating these contradictions, but mankind does not possess this ability, which leads directly to the potential misinterpretations of a savage cult commonly associated with Bacchic worship.

§1.7 While the chorus understands that true wisdom is beyond their reach, they continue to strive towards τὸ σοφόν through religious moderation. The chorus maintains their sanity through proper ritual practice, contrary to the Theban women and Pentheus who are afflicted by the madness sent by Dionysus. The Lydian women represent a balance between the wild and the tame as one aspect of the naturally occurring dualities associated with Dionysian worship. They are foreign women who are outside of the polis, and yet they are called into the city by the god to spread the cult of Dionysus. While the Theban women act like barbarians and Pentheus relies solely on logic and reasoning, the chorus demonstrates a balance of these opposing concepts. The chorus states, “I do not begrudge the wise their wisdom—but I happily pursue the other things which are great and plain to see” (395-401, 1005-7) indicating that they understand a part of the dual nature of Dionysus. They accept that τὸ σοφόν is above their level of comprehension, but they also identify σωφροσύνη as the vehicle through which mortals may glimpse an understanding of these dualities.

§1.8 In light of this, we can see how Pentheus and Agave are both punished severely for their impiety towards Dionysus. The Theban women use the strength from their madness to commit impious ritual sacrifices and make false dedications to Dionysus. After their attempted capture, the women destroy a heard of cattle that causes the spread of miasma. The women tear the animals apart and discard the pieces (736-40), leaving them to pollute the countryside in their wake (740-42). Later, Agave returns to Thebes with the severed head of Pentheus as a trophy for the entablature of the house in honor of Dionysus (1214). The Theban women performed impious sacrifices that polluted the land and made false dedicatory offerings to Dionysus. Although their intent was to honor the god with this show of strength, they were not moderate in their actions and did not follow proper ritual practice, which made their actions impious.

§1.9 At the other end of the spectrum, Pentheus attempts to erase the cult of Dionysus from the city of Thebes.In his eradication, Pentheus experiences “the dangerous and destructive aspects in Dionysian worship [that] arise precisely when the religious impulse is too forcefully suppressed.” [11] The king threatens injury not only to the cult followers, but also to Dionysus himself, claiming that he will hunt down the women on the mountain (226, 231), perform human sacrifices (796-97), and physically attack the god (240-41, 629-30). When faced with the undulating polarities of Dionysian ritual practice, Pentheus lashes out with violent actions and impious intentions. The king clearly intended neither to honor the god nor operate under proper ritual practices.

§1.10 In contrast to both Pentheus and the Theban women, the chorus illustrates that a sound mind, or σωφροσύνη, is a ritually pious means to pursue τὸ σοφόν. In his agon with Dionysus, Pentheus shows that he is incapable of assessing what true wisdom is or even how to possess this knowledge.[12] Dionysus highlights Pentheus’ lack of understanding by telling him that, “You do not know what your life is, or what you are doing, or who you are,” to which the king responds, “I am Pentheus, the son of Agave and of my father Echion” (506-7). The king can only comprehend knowledge as it pertains to the here and now; he cannot comprehend a more nuanced level of understanding with respect to the world around him.

§1.11 Those possessing σωφροσύνη, on the other hand, understand Dionysus’ accusations on a deeper level. Pentheus does not know his fate, he does not know that he is detaining a god, and he certainly does not know who he truly is. The chorus members, who are pious in their ritual practices and possess σωφροσύνη, correctly identify Pentheus as the serpent’s offspring (538, 1155). As a descendent of the sown-men, the king’s actions and violent tendencies caused by his ignorance and lack of reverence for Dionysus will lead to the same fated destruction as his ancestors (Apollodorus, Library, 3.4.1). Because the chorus is both moderate and pious in their ritual practices, they gain insight into the world around them through an understanding of the dualities that are inherent in Dionysus and his ritual practices.

§1.12 Through this discussion of τὸ σοφόν, pious ritual worship, and the relationship between mankind and the divine, the larger picture often becomes lost in the details of textual analysis. From the surface, the Bacchae demonstrates rituals commonly associated with Dionysus: the altered state of consciousness, the symbolic events through which the god is manifest, and the consequences placed on those who doubt the power of the god.[13] The plot follows this concept; Dionysus sends his madness to those who doubted his power, inherently contrasting them with those who worship the god in a moderate fashion (i.e. the chorus). Dionysus defies conventional logic, navigating effortlessly between these polarized states and tragic contradictions such as joy to sorrow and insight to madness. With this in mind, the text becomes more complex and shows how the mastery of these naturally occurring dualities is innate in Dionysus. By remaining moderate in their religious worship, the chorus is aware of the dualities inherent in Dionysian worship, while accepting that a mastery of these extremes is beyond their comprehension. By observing the spectrum of ritual worship within the Bacchae, the risk of Dionysian worship becomes clear: remain moderate in your ritual practices or surrender your ability to act piously towards the gods. In this way, Euripides allows the audience to witness the inherent dangers of impious ritual worship through the characters of Pentheus and the Theban women while simultaneously emphasizing the chorus as the paradigm of moderation and ritual piety.


Euripides, Bacchae.

Hall, E. 2008. “Introduction,” Euripides’ Bacchae, Oxford.

Hedreen, G. 1994. “Silens, Nymphs, and Maenads,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 114, pp. 47-69.

Herodas, Mimiamboi 4.

Hesiod, Theogony.

Homer, Odyssey.

MacLeod, L. 2006. “Marauding Maenads: The first Messenger Speech in the Bacchae,” Mnemosyne 59, pp. 578-584.

Reynolds-Warnhoff, P. 1997. “The Role of τὸ σοφόν in Euripides’ Bacchae,” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 57, pp. 77-103.

Sale, W. 1977. Sickness, Tragedy and Divinity in the Medea, The Hippolytus and The Bacchae, Aureal Publications.

Scott, W. 1975. “Two Suns over Thebes: Imagery and Stage Effects in the Bacchae,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 105, pp. 333-346.

Sokolowski, F. 1969. Lois sacrées des cites grecques, Paris.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.

Whitehorne, J. 1986. “The Dead as Spectacle in Euripides’ Bachae and Supplices,” Hermes 114, pp. 59-72.

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