Art, mythological art, women of mythology

Bacchantes or Maenads?

Who were them?

In fact, there isn’t only one answer.

According to some sources Maenads and Bacchantes aren’t the same, they said that Maenads were divine feminine beings who served the god Dionysus, as the nymphs, while the Bacchantes were mortal women who dedicated themselves to his cult. However, the most accepted theory is that Maenads and Bacchantes are synonyms, Maenad being the word used in Greek mythology and Bacchante in Roman mythology.


Dancing maenad. Detail from a Paestan red-figure skyphos, ca. 330-320 BC. – British Museum
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bacchantes and Maenads were women who worshiped the Greek god Dionysus, or Bacchus to the Romans. They were not only the female followers of this god, but they’re also the most important part of his retinue. They are also known as Bassarids, according to the Roman mythology, the god used to wear a bassarisk or fox skin.

In Ancient Greece the worship of Dionysus/Bacchus were very important and influenced the philosophical thinking of the Greeks, although nowadays is simple associated with drunkenness. The discovery of beer and wine was associated by farmers to a god with the “divine madness”.

Maenad, Roman Relief of 5th century –
Museo del Prado
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the priestesses of Dionysus, during the rites, the maenads would dress in fawn skins and carry a thyrsus, a long stick wrapped in ivy or vine leaves and tipped with a pine cone. They would weave ivy-wreaths around their heads or wear a bull helmet in honour of their god, and often handle or wear snakes.

With the time, the term maenad has become associated with a wide, mythological variety of women. in this realm, we can find in myths the reference to the maenads as the nymphs who nurse and care for the young Dionysus and that continue in his worsip as he comes to the age.

In Art

Maenads have been depicted in art history as erratic and frenzied women wrapped in a drunken rapture, the best-known example we can find in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, however this play cannot be considered as a study of Dionysus’ cult or as the effects of the religious hysteria of these women.

Maenad in silk dress, a Roman fresco from Pompeii,
1st century AD – Naples National Archaeological Museum
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, they were commonly portrayed as inspired by Dionysus into this state of religious ecstasy, a combination of dancing and intoxication, that is usually called as Dionysiac. Depictions of maenads inspired in Euripides’ play are often found on black and red figure of Greek pottery, statues and jewellery.

Some fragments od reliefs of female worshipers of Dionysus were discovered in Corinth. According to scholars these fragments trace the evolution of maenad’s depictions on red figure pottery. But the depictions of bacchantes/maenads are not only from antiquity, we can find many examples in the art of 18th and 19th century.

Bacchante by William Bouguereau, 1894 –
Private Collection (Photo credit: Wikiart)

It is curious that we can find references to maenads/bacchantes in other arts as literature, opera and tv. For example, in Shelley’s poem ‘Ode to the West Wind’ appears a maenad; Julio Cortázar wrote a short story called ‘The maenads’; in C. S. Lewis’ ‘Prince Caspian’ some maenads appear along with Bacchus. And the most famous opera composed by Hans Werner Henze is called The Bassarids.

By Female Artists

In my research I only find few examples of bacchante/maenad by women artists. And they are very different from each other. This can be explained by the difficulties faced by women to dedicate themselves to historical painting, since they were not allowed to study anatomy or drawing from live models.

The first examples are by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, one of the most remarkable painters of 18th century. Also, I found two Impressionist paintings, one by Mary Cassatt and the other is by Louise Abbéma, she is a much less known painter. And the last one is by Russian avant-garde artist Aleksandra Ekster.


Maenad Costume Design for the play “Famira Kifared” by Aleksandra Ekster, 1916

Curiosity

  • The word Maenads literally means the “raving ones”.

References:

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